By Brent Erickson
July 19, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
Policymakers on both sides of the aisle love to pledge their support for innovation and American competiveness. How many times have we heard President Obama talk about his administration’s commitment to fostering a new era of green jobs? As voters, we’ve learned to take these promises with a healthy dose of skepticism – even the best-intentioned ideas can run into a brick wall of partisanship once they get to D.C. That’s what makes the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) – which was designed to grow biofuel use – such a unique success. Born under a GOP administration in 2005, the program was expanded in 2007 and continued to gain support after Democrats claimed the White House.
Thanks to the RFS, at least 10 percent of the fuel in almost every American gas tank comes from a renewable source, like ethanol or one of the newer cellulosic fuels now being made from alternative feedstocks, such as corn stalks and cobs. Oil companies are required to offer these blends, and consumers end up saving anywhere from $.50 to $1.00 per gallon during periods of high oil prices. Equally important, America is less vulnerable to supply interruptions and manipulation by oil exporters in Russia, Venezuela, and Iran.
The transition to ethanol doesn’t just mean we use less oil. It’s also helping to reduce carbon emissions from America’s transportation sector and clear the air of gasoline additives like benzene, the same cancer-causing chemicals found in cigarette smoke. According to research sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE), the average gallon of corn ethanol yields 34 percent fewer carbon emissions than gasoline, while the advanced ethanol production now coming online can cut emissions by 100 percent or more.
Not every lawmaker is sold on the idea of renewables, but it’s hard not to appreciate the billions of dollars of economic activity across the U.S. that has been driven by the RFS. Investments that would otherwise go to China and Brazil have landed in America and now support more than 852,000 American jobs across agriculture, manufacturing, and engineering. U.S. oil imports have fallen by half since 2005.
The greatest threat to the program today is its own success. With ethanol blends like E15 and E85 now gaining popularity, oil companies are increasingly desperate to curtail the competition. They are pushing Congress to weaken the RFS and asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to lower America’s annual biofuel targets for 2017. Opponents frequently claim that ethanol is bad for engines, but extensive testing by the DOE has shown the opposite. The EPA agrees and has approved blends up to 15 percent for all cars manufactured after 2001.
Researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have proven that ethanol boosts the octane in fuel, lowers greenhouse gas emissions, and provides for better fuel economy. Of course, NASCAR drivers have known that for a decade, which is why they all use a 15 percent ethanol blend.
Nevertheless, those with strong ties to the fossil fuel industry continue to push, and the EPA continues to give ground. For 2017, the agency proposed reducing America’s targets for conventional biofuel by 200 million gallons and for advanced biofuels by more than half. According to BIO’s most recent analysis, the EPA’s unwillingness to implement the law as designed has chilled $22.4 billion in U.S. investments – money that could be creating that new wave of green energy jobs that so many of our policymakers claim to support.
If they really support innovation and American competiveness, now is the time to show it. Our representatives in Congress should speak up and urge the EPA to support America’s most successful green energy program. Those of us at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) will be paying attention, as will voters across the country.
Brent Erickson is executive vice president of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO)