The Worst Environmental Policy in U.S. History

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Yesterday Frank Rusco, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at the Government Accountability Office testified before the Senate to discuss the results of a study just released by the agency. The study found the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires corn ethanol to be blended into gasoline, is unlikely to meet its targets to reduce carbon emissions.

And while reducing climate-warming carbon emissions was one of the primary reasons for the passage of the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007, I think the GAO put it lightly when it said the law is not likely meet its targets.

The truth is the corn ethanol mandate has actually increased carbon emissions, as well as incentivizing the destruction for millions of acres of grasslands.

I can’t think of any other well-intentioned environmental policy that has done so much environmental damage.

And sadly, just recently the EPA upped the ante on this destructive policy. Last Wednesday, before Thanksgiving, the EPA set the 2017 mandate for corn ethanol at 15 billion gallons, the maximum amount of corn ethanol that can be mandated by the RFS.

Many environmentalists have decried the Renewable Fuel Standard because of the destruction it has done to the American landscape.

“We’re losing habitat at an alarming rate,” Collin O’Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation stated during his testimony on the Renewable Fuel Standard before the Energy and Commerce committee this June. Mr. O’Mara was referring to the rampant grassland destruction that has occurred since the RFS was passed in 2007.

Grasslands in the U.S. are near extinction, and the RFS has recently contributed to their demise. Over 99 percent of tallgrass prairie grasslands have gone under the plow to grow more crops to meet increasing crop demands. And we’re now using 40 percent of the corn we grow to make ethanol.

In the Dakotas, for example, thousands of acres of grasslands were intentionally set ablaze and plowed under by producers wanting to cash in on the high corn and soybean prices between 2010 and 2014, when the RFS was ramping up. A 2015 University of Wisconsin paper found that over 7 million acres of grasslands were plowed up to grow more crops, predominantly corn, during this time.

Grassland destruction leads to carbon emissions. When they are burned the carbon stored in plants is released into the air (obvi) but also when the soils are plowed up they release the carbon locked in the soils into the air (not-so obvi).

The University of Wisconsin study found that recent land conversions to grow more corn and soybeans could have emitted 131 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, as much as 34 coal-fired power plants operating for one year.

So while the GAO found that the RFS probably won’t meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, they forgot to mention that this federal policy is actually increasing carbon emissions by destroying American grasslands.