Our Work

Unhappy Birthday: Time to Rethink Ethanol as the Mandate Turns 10

From Jon Groveman, VNRC Policy & Water Program Director

When it comes to protecting our environment, the news coming out of Washington D.C. these days has gone from bad to worse. The Trump Administration has rolled out policy after policy that weakens or eliminates protections for public health and our environment. Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord was just the start; we’re seeing a wide range of critical environmental programs and water protections being gutted too.

In Vermont, we are lucky to have a Congressional delegation that is not only fighting these backward policies but daily standing as stalwart supporters of policies and regulations that protect Vermont natural resources and our communities. Though the federal landscape for environmental action is bleak, our delegation has the opportunity to continue stepping up as national leaders to enact strong environmental policies. A great example of this is the opportunity arising right now to reform the corn ethanol mandate it turns 10 years old this month.

In 2007, on December 19th, Congress adopted the corn ethanol mandate as part of a bill establishing a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The goal of the RFS was to incentivize homegrown, renewable fuels that would reduce the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels and decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, over the ten years since the standard’s adoption, it has become clear that the RFS has had unintended and devastating consequences for water quality and wildlife habitat, and has not been successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, ethanol fuel does not perform well in small engines like chainsaws, lawn equipment and snowmobiles, and boats, which are widely used in Vermont.

A nationwide study from researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that more than 7.3 million acres of land — mostly grasslands — were converted to crop production between 2008 and 2012. While it was not the RFS alone that caused these changes, it played an undeniable role in the loss of native habitat for crop production.

Moreover, ethanol production uses a significant amount of water, and, as we have seen in Vermont, growing excessive amounts of corn can lead to erosion and nutrient pollution of streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds.

These negative impacts have accrued alongside the failure to realize the reductions in carbon emissions promised at the law’s passage. It is clear that as the ethanol mandate turns ten, it is time to reform the law. VNRC urges that any reform:

  1. Significantly decreasing the corn ethanol mandate.
  2. Provides incentives for cellulosic and advanced biofuels that will truly foster the development and production of modern biofuels.
  3. Ensures that the RFS more effectively conserves native habitat.
  4. Mitigates damage to the vast amount of wildlife habitat that has been lost due to the expansion of corn grown for ethanol by creating a conservation mitigation fund sufficient to support habitat and water quality restoration linked to the RFS.

If enacted, these revisions will put us on a path toward reversing the damage caused by the corn ethanol mandate to wildlife and water, while putting in place policies that will genuinely reduce carbon emissions. These are issues that Vermonters care deeply about, and we hope our Congressional delegation keeps up the good work by proving that something positive for the environment can emerge from Washington D.C.