Opinions Pouring In On EPA Ethanol Proposal

Jan 22, 2014

Some commenting on the EPA's proposal to reduce the ethanol mandate even include hand-written appeals.
Credit Regulations.gov

Dear EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy,

Your inbox is filling up fast. Both ethanol supporters and critics are responding in bulk to the agency’s November proposal to reduce the ethanol mandate for 2014. Over 13,000 comments are in so far.

Instead of requiring 18.15 billion gallons of biofuel to be mixed in the fuel supply, as laid out by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), EPA is proposing 15.21 billion gallons. That includes a first-ever cut to the mandate for conventional (corn) ethanol since the RFS was passed in 2007.

The agency justifies the break in policy by pointing out gasoline demand is far lower than Congress expected in 2007, and higher ethanol blends like E85 have not taken off as hoped.

To make the RFS work, economists say the government must continue to push ambitious mandates, but some commenters say this is a good time for government leave the choice to individual drivers. The EPA’s public database of submitted comments does a good job of laying out arguments – both the pro and con -- for changing the RFS. 

“My motorcycles are not made to run on such fuels,” commented Robert Niemela from Lakeside, Calif. “If ethanol fuel is cheaper, then just make it available and those of us that can use it will use it. This one-size-fits-all doesn't ever work.”

But the push to develop the ethanol industry has provided a strong economic tailwind for rural areas. Ethanol supporters don’t want to see it let up.

“Because of RFS, rural America has seen improvements in their economies, young people are moving back helping to maintain the local communities, with improving opportunities in industry along with the improvements in local agriculture,” wrote John Steiner, a farmer from Mediapolis, Iowa. “With the small percentage of our country directly involved in production agriculture, this is critically important.”

Farmers fear if the EPA cuts the ethanol mandate, recent good times could come to an abrupt end.

“At a time when corn farmers have harvested a record crop and are seeing corn prices drop, this is the sort of decision that can make or break a farm and cause havoc in 2014 planting decisions,” said Max VanDelune of Prairie City, Iowa.

But there are those, including many livestock feeders, who believe the RFS creates its own share of economic hardship.

“When corn accounts for over 70 percent of the total cost of producing turkeys at Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative, Inc., there is no way a mandate like the RFS is not going to drive up costs and increase volatility,” said Mickey Baugher who manages a poultry feeding complex in Hinton, Va.

Several commenters have environmental concerns with pushing corn cultivation to feed ethanol production, especially as it related to the loss of grassland. I reported in October that some rural advocates are pushing changes to the crop insurance program to reduce the conversion of grassland once in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to grow corn.

“We have lost thousands of CRP acres as well as any land along fence rows and streams that would not be counted as habitat due to its small size but is now being plowed and planted with corn at the expense of habitat for birds, animals and even insects like the Monarch butterfly,” wrote Gene Szymkowiak, a small animal veterinarian in Iowa City, Iowa.

The choice for the EPA is complex. The agency may feel a cooling off period is in order to account for a decrease in gasoline demand and the slow rollout of both high ethanol blends like E15 and E85. But as Harvest Public Media has reported (link), that strategy may jeopardize the very goals at the heart of the RFS.

EPA will continue taking comments through Jan. 28 before making a final decision, perhaps by midyear.