OPED: Fix Bad Ethanol Policy

OPED: Fix Bad Ethanol Policy

Albany – Corn-based ethanol is bad for the environment. Period.

For the past dozen years, the federal government has mandated we fuel our cars with a mixture of gasoline and corn ethanol under a policy called the Renewable Fuel Standard. Advocates for corn ethanol sold the mandate as an environmentally friendly means of achieving energy independence. Ethanol’s promise was so alluring that, in 2007, Congress doubled down and greatly expanded the mandate with broad bipartisan support.

But Congress got it wrong – the corn ethanol mandate was a mistake.

While fueling our cars, trucks, and boats with corn ethanol may appear environmentally friendly, it quite simply isn’t.  It hurts our air quality, because corn ethanol blends produce more ground level ozone – known as smog – than gasoline alone. And as we move into the summer, it will get worse. Ozone is linked to asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses, particularly in children and the elderly. Unfortunately, New Yorkers who deal with some of the worst summer air pollution in the country are all too familiar with the problems of smog.

The ethanol mandate hasn’t just hurt city folks – it has caused tremendous repercussions throughout rural America.

The corn ethanol mandate intensified agricultural production and destroyed vast swathes of native wildlife habitat throughout the Midwest, to make way for row after row of monoculture corn, destined for fuel tanks. Between 2008 and 2012 alone, more than 7.3 million acres of land were plowed under – an area 1.5 times larger than the entire Hudson River Valley. Areas in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota saw conversion rates of native prairie exceeding that of tropical deforestation, while some counties outside traditional agricultural areas – including a few Upstate – saw their farmland acreage more than double.

This devastation of habitat is also fueling a growing wildlife crisis. Important habitat has disappeared for waterfowl, monarch butterflies, bees, grassland birds, such as prairie chickens and longspurs, and mammals, like the swift fox, and numerous others. This is bad news for duck and pheasant hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities that contribute to our powerhouse outdoor economy, which supports 7.6 million jobs, many of which are in rural America.

The corn ethanol mandate has also taken a terrible toll on our waterways, fishing, and our boaters. Increased corn production has increased nutrient runoff, which degrades water quality, killing aquatic life and promoting toxic algal blooms that threaten human health, kill fish, and render water undrinkable. For example, in 2014, polluted farm runoff contributed to a harmful algal bloom in western Lake Erie, poisoning drinking water for more than 400,000 people for three days. And ask any recreational boater out on the Mohawk or the Hudson about the havoc that corn ethanol wreaks on their boat engines.

Instead of trying to fix the ethanol mandate, some members of Congress are tripling down on this misguided policy. With corn ethanol having hit its upper limit under current law, the ethanol industry is now seeking special treatment to sell more ethanol and dump Clean Air Act protections in the process. Their bill, the Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act (S.517), would make a bad situation worse by increasing the demand for ethanol, which would fuel a new rush to plough under dwindling wildlife habitat.

This is the wrong move.

Instead of rolling back Clean Air Act protections, public officials should roll up their sleeves and work on reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard to make it work for communities, businesses, and farmers.

Manageable solutions exist that will help fix the broken ethanol mandate. We can start by decreasing the reliance on corn ethanol and encourage more sustainable fuels – being careful to avoid cultivating noxious or invasive species. We should enforce provisions already in the law to prevent conversion of habitat to cropland. And we must invest in the restoration of iconic habitats, such as native prairie, that have borne the brunt of damage. Finally, we can make these common-sense updates without ripping apart the Clean Air Act, in which the ethanol mandate is housed. We can find a way to keep moving forward on our clean fuel goals – but in ways that do not destroy our land, water, and wildlife.

New York’s Congressional delegation is well-positioned to lead this charge. U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko is the lead Democrat on the House subcommittee that is working to find a common-sense path forward, and he is joined on the committee by upstate Rep. Chris Collins (R-Lancaster) and Rep. Elliot Engel from the City (D-Bronx). Further, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the Renewable Fuel Standard and will consider S.517 on Wednesday. And, of course, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will exert pivotal influence in making the law work better for our shared air, water, and wildlife.

We need our leaders – Republicans and Democrats, rural and urban, agriculture and industry – to stand with science and fix the ethanol mandate.

America’s clean water, public health, and wildlife is at stake.

Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Peter Iwanowicz is executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.

This OPED appeared in the June 26, 2017 edition of the Albany Times Union.