Report Calls Biofuels Standard an Environmental Disaster

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NEW YORK – A new report says the push for biofuels is causing serious environmental damage. 

The Renewable Fuel Standard or RFS was intended to reduce reliance on oil imports and cut air pollution. It requires that all gasoline for transportation sold in the United States contain at least 10 percent ethanol. 

But the report from the National Wildlife Federation says that has led to the conversion of 1.6 million acres of grassland, shrubland, wetlands and forests to agricultural production, including land here in New York. 

Aaron Smith is an agricultural economics professor at the University of California, Davis. Smith says that conversion has serious environmental consequences.

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“That means that you are converting habitat that may have been inhabited by various species into cropland,” says Smith. “That means you’re using more water, using more nitrogen, both of which contribute to pollution.”

Supporters of the Renewable Fuel Standard say it has reduced oil imports and boosted farm income, but critics note that the land-use changes are releasing 14 million metric tons of carbon a year, accelerating climate change. 

According to David DeGennaro, agriculture policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation, when the RFS was established in 2007, corn and soybeans were supposed to be bridges to the development of cleaner fuels.

“The original law had envisioned that we would start using an array of other things, such as grasses or wood waste or waste oils, that wouldn’t have the same impact on the landscape,” says DeGennaro. “But that transition has never occurred.”

The report says, in addition to converting new cropland to corn and soybeans, the RFS led farmers to switch existing cropland to corn on almost seven million acres a year between 2008 and 2016.

DeGennaro points out that the Environmental Protection Agency must reset the standard for ethanol in gasoline by November 30 of this year. 

“They could use that as a real opportunity to improve the program and move it in the right direction,” says DeGennaro. “Or, they could double down and say we haven’t been getting those other fuels, so we’re just going to focus on the corn- and soy-based fuels, and that would be a real step backward.”

The EPA’s proposal for a new standard is expected to be released this spring.

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