Reject Backward Thinking on Carbon

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past few decades, it’s that there is no magic bullet to stop climate change. International agreements, emissions caps, efficiency standards, consumer education and clean energy are just a few of the solutions that will be necessary to address the single most urgent threat facing our environment. What we cannot do is go backward.

Yet that is what some members of Congress would do with renewable fuels. H.R. 5180, a proposal introduced by U.S. Representative Bill Flores (R-Texas), would place a 9.7 percent cap on consumption of homegrown biofuels, rolling back 11 years of progress under the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Proponents of the bill, including many oil industry champions, say the marketplace simply cannot absorb more than 9.7 percent renewable fuel. They fail to acknowledge, however, that ethanol recently hit 10.2 percent of the national gasoline market, and the EPA has approved blends of up to 15 percent ethanol for model year 2001 and newer cars. Therefore, the so-called “blend wall” simply doesn’t exist.

Domestically-produced renewable biofuels yield clear economic and security advantages, while also benefiting our climate. Even conventional biofuels like corn ethanol, which accounts for about 85 percent of the current market for renewable fuels, reduces carbon emissions by 19 to 48 percent compared with traditional gasoline, according to a 2012 Department of Energy report. These benefits have increased in recent years, as biofuels have become less energy-intensive to produce while oil/gasoline has become more energy-intensive to extract and produce. Much of our gasoline now comes from some of the most carbon-intensive sources of oil in the world, such as tar sands.

One of the most specious claims made in support of the Flores bill is that capping renewable fuel markets would protect pristine land from cultivation. In reality, the RFS expressly excludes biofuel production from newly plowed land. According to a model developed by Argonne National Lab, the Carbon Calculator for Land Use Change from Biofuels Production, estimates of land use changes due to the RFS have dropped significantly since 2010, as land under cultivation is being used more intensively. Therefore, the impact of corn ethanol on land use expansion is much smaller than previously calculated.

Moreover, the RFS is not just about conventional biofuels. Almost every gallon of renewable fuel required under the RFS going forward will be an advanced biofuel. Indeed, more than half of the fuel required for use by Congress under the RFS are advanced biofuels. Department of Energy research shows that advanced biofuels can reduce emissions by as much as 100 percent, and in some cases, sequester carbon over time.

Incredibly, some Flores bill supporters actually claim that an ethanol market cap would help advanced biofuels grow. Nothing could be further from the truth. Locking in the oil industry’s monopoly would freeze further investment in biofuels and shut down innovation in America’s largest renewable energy sector.

For many, the climate fight is focused on implementing President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. America is indeed poised to make major strides toward reducing the carbon emissions from electricity generation. But recent data from the Energy Information Administration shows that greenhouse gas emissions from transportation now surpass those from power plants. Given this trend, it’s abundantly clear that any serious strategy to combat climate change must address the liquid fuels that power cars and trucks.

There is no question that electrification will play a key role in this effort, but a market cap on biofuels would effectively terminate any serious effort underway to reduce the carbon impact of the liquid fuels that will continue to be consumed. That’s what the Flores bill is really about.

Global efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions are finally reaching a tipping point, where growing international consensus offers hope for a sustainable future. Proposals like H.R. 5180 could derail the transformational shift away from fossil fuels that biofuels help to provide. But if lawmakers hand oil companies a guaranteed 90.3 percent share of liquid motor fuel markets, it would threaten hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs and economic activity across the country; it would significantly increase carbon and other harmful emissions; and it would send a powerful signal to other nations — and investors — that America is not serious about addressing the huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions emitted from oil in the U.S. transportation sector.


Carol Werner serves as executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a nonprofit education and policy organization dedicated to sustainable development.

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