News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Feinstein Backs Attempt to End Corn Ethanol Mandate

Better for eating than for driving, say critics | Photo: swanksalot/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Citing damage to the environment and higher food prices, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is lending her support to a bill that would end a federal mandate to increase the amount of corn ethanol in auto fuel.

The Corn Ethanol Mandate Elimination Act of 2013, introduced into the Senate Thursday by Feinstein and nine other Senators from both sides of the aisle, would end the annual corn ethanol increase in standard gasoline mandated by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

"I strongly support requiring a shift to low-carbon advanced biofuel, including biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol and other revolutionary fuels," said Feinstein in a press release. "But a corn ethanol mandate is simply bad policy."

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Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is Feinstein's co-author on the bill. Co-sponsors include Richard Burr (R-NC), Susan Collins (R-ME), Bob Corker (R-TN), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Jim Risch (R-ID), and Patrick Toomey (R-PA).

"The time to end the corn ethanol mandate has arrived," said Coburn. "This misguided policy has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, increased fuel prices and made our food more expensive. I'm grateful my colleagues on both sides on the aisle are prepared to take this long-overdue step to protect consumers and taxpayers from artificially high fuel and food prices."

Bipartisan support for the bill isn't surprising. Many conservatives oppose the corn ethanol mandate because it's a government subsidy for alternative fuels tailored to a particular interest group: Midwestern corn growers. "Eliminating this mandate will let market forces, rather than political and parochial forces, determine how to diversify fuel supplies in an ever-changing marketplace," said Coburn.

Meanwhile, those on the marginally greener side of the aisle have voiced increasing concern in past years that corn ethanol may actually be worse for the climate than burning fossil fuels directly, as a result of high fossil fuel use by American agriculture and conversion of carbon-sequestering wildlands to crop land. A 2008 study in the journal Science found that switching to corn ethanol from gasoline actually doubles greenhouse gas emissions.

Enacted in 2005, the RFS required companies that refine and blend fuel to include 16.5 billion gallons of biofuels this year. More than 13 billion gallons of that amount, or around 80 percent, came from corn ethanol.

The Environmental Protection agency last month proposed cutting the RFS for 2014, which would have risen from 2013 levels to more than 18 billion gallons, down to 15.2 billion.

Critics of the corn ethanol mandate point out that the artificially high prices for fuel corn cause farmers to plant less for food. In 2012 and 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop, or 4.6 billion of 11.9 billion total bushels, went to ethanol production rather than food. Corn prices have more than tripled in the U.S. since the RPS was enacted, though a recent record drought likely contributed to some of that rise.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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