Commentary: Welch’s Stance Against Corn Ethanol

When a Washington-based lobbying outfit started airing television ads in Vermont that attack Rep. Peter Welch because he wants to scale back federal support for corn ethanol, the erstwhile Vermonter in me took offense.

It has been a few years since I lived in Vermont, but I was born in Burlington, grew up in Essex Junction, and graduated from Essex High. I now live near Boston, but I’ll probably always consider myself a Vermonter and I think I still have a working sense of what Vermonters value.

Vermonters value follow-through, which partly explains Rep. Welch’s skepticism about the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal law that effectively requires Americans to put billions of gallons of biofuel into our cars each year. The policy is sustained mainly by Iowa’s peculiar role in presidential politics and by the corn ethanol lobby, which has a history of big claims and poor follow-through. One of those claims is that the Renewable Fuel Standard has successfully stimulated the development of environmentally-friendly biofuels made from cellulosic material, waste, and algae. The results have not matched the hype.

The Renewable Fuel Standard has delivered lots of corn ethanol, and not much else. The policy crammed 103 billion gallons of biofuel into the fuel mix from 2006 through 2014; corn ethanol accounted for 93 billion of those gallons. Its backers tout corn ethanol as a bridge to better and cleaner fuels, but where are these fuels? The amount of cellulosic ethanol made last year was less than 2 percent of the production level that Congress had targeted for 2014. The policy is proving to be the new bridge to nowhere.

Worse yet, if cellulosic ethanol production ever does get up to speed, it will discover that corn ethanol has crowded it out of the marketplace. There is an upper limit on the amount of ethanol that can be blended into the United States gasoline mix. If refiners exceed that limit, known as the blend wall, many older cars will experience the same types of ethanol-related problems that have long plagued lawn mowers and boat engines. So with the encouragement of Rep. Welch and other members of Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to preserve space under the blend wall for cellulosic ethanol, by reducing the amount of corn ethanol that Americans have to consume annually. The corn ethanol lobby responded by blasting the Agency and launching a wave of attack ads at Vermont’s congressman. Instead of following through on the Renewable Fuel Standard’s promise of cleaner biofuels, the corn ethanol lobby is busy jockeying for unfettered access to its favorite federal subsidy.

Vermonters also value a healthy environment. Numerous studies link corn ethanol production to the loss of critically important wildlife habitats and to increases in water pollution, air pollution, and soil degradation. It matters little that most of this damage occurs in the Corn Belt, because Vermonters care about other places, too (even places that lack mountains). Research also shows that emissions from the resource-intensive process of making corn ethanol contribute to global climate change, which affects both Iowa and Vermont, not to mention the rest of world.

It should come as no surprise, then, that an elected official from Vermont would want to curtail federal support for corn ethanol. Rep. Welch managed to upset Washington lobbyists because he signed a letter urging the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the Renewable Fuel Standard’s annual corn ethanol mandate. Good for him. My organization—a nonprofit environmental group dedicated to protecting the atmosphere—sent the Agency a similar request, as did the Environmental Working Group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the anti-hunger group ActionAid, and others. Cutting back on corn ethanol is the right policy, regardless of where you are from.

Jonathan Lewis grew up in Essex Jct. He directs projects on bioenergy and low-carbon liquid fuels at the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental organization that works to help safeguard against the worst impacts of climate change.

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