February 28, 2018

Water. Human rights. Land. Agriculture. Climate change. Biodiversity. Food security. The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which mandates a certain level of biofuel usage, impacts all of these issues, and without bringing together a similarly diverse group of stakeholders, no real reform is possible.

Article after article has been published in the past few weeks about the various meetings the Trump Administration is holding between corn ethanol interests and Senator Chuck Grassley and oil refiner interests and Senator Ted Cruz, painting the RFS debate as a fight between big oil and big corn.

Oil refiners are pushing for changes to the RFS, which they say is burdensome to their industry. The RFS requires a specific and growing amount of biofuels be consumed each year and small refiners often do not have the equipment to blend the fuels themselves. To be in compliance with the law, they must buy what are called Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs). RINs are generated when biofuels and produced or imported. Small refiners are saying that the price of RINs is too high and driving them out of business. On the other hand, corn ethanol producers have been strongly opposed to any changes to the law, and Iowa politicians have strongly agreed with them. The Trump Administration – stuck between two industries and politicians it would like to please – has been trying to work out a deal in a series of meetings.

But this framing – of RFS reform as a fight between two major industries – misses the many impacts and stakeholders in the debate around RFS reform. The impacts of the RFS stretch so much farther than the corn and oil industries. The RFS helped drive the harmful food price spikes we saw in 2007/2008, and again in 2011/2012, and it still creates volatility today. Family farmers in developing countries have been forced off their land to make way for biofuel feedstock production. Land conversion in the United States has led to ecosystem and habitat loss. This land conversion is a big part of the reason corn ethanol – which is still the vast majority of biofuels used to meet the RFS requirements – doesn’t actually work as a climate change solution, and may actually be worse than gasoline from an emissions standpoint. Heavy pesticide use in the production of biofuel feedstocks has led to polluted water.

Plus, the RFS has failed to spark commercial-scale development of cellulosic biofuels that could actually provide sustainability benefits.

Even if corn and oil manage to come to an agreement with the Trump Administration, it’s just going to be a corporate fix, not the real reform that’s needed. Rather than looking to fix a single industry’s problem, real reform will have to address the many negative, unintended consequences of the RFS. Real reform should prevent land conversion, phase out food-based biofuel mandates, and protect land rights, while also supporting the development of truly clean, renewable fuels – the original goal of the RFS.

That’s the kind of reform ActionAid is ready to support.