"Environmentalists who once championed biofuels as a way to cut pollution are now turning against a U.S. program that puts renewable fuels in cars, citing higher-than-expected carbon dioxide emissions and reduced wildlife habitat.
More than a decade after conservationists helped persuade Congress to require adding corn-based ethanol and other biofuels to gasoline, some groups regret the resulting agricultural runoff in waterways and conversion of prairies to cropland -- improving the odds that lawmakers might seek changes to the program next year.
"The big green groups that got invested in biofuels are tacitly realizing the blunder," said John DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute who previously focused on automotive strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund. "It’s really hard for the people who really -- shall we say -- hate oil viscerally, to think that this alternative that we’ve been promoting is today worse than oil."
The green backlash could give a boost to long-stalled congressional efforts to overhaul the Renewable Fuel Standard, including proposals to limit the amount of traditional, corn-based ethanol that counts toward the mandate, as environmentalists side with anti-hunger groups and even the oil industry in calling for change. The RFS forces refiners to blend steadily escalating amounts of biofuel into the gas supply. Most of the mandate is currently fulfilled by corn-based ethanol, which makes up nearly 10 percent of U.S. gasoline and provides oxygen that helps the fuel burn cleaner.
Broken PromiseThe Natural Resources Defense Council used a 96-page report in 2004 to proclaim boundless biofuel benefits: slashed global warming emissions, improved air quality and more wildlife habitat.
Instead, farmers plowed millions of acres of prairie grasses to grow corn for making ethanol, with fertilizer runoff contributing to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists warned that carbon dioxide emissions associated with corn-based ethanol were higher than expected. And alternatives using switchgrass, algae and other non-edible plant materials have been slow to penetrate the market.
"The ethanol policy was sold to environmentalists as something that was going to clean up the environment, and it’s done anything but," said Democratic Representative Peter Welch of Vermont, who is co-sponsoring legislation to revamp the RFS. "It’s truly been a flop. The environmental promise has been transformed into an environmental detriment."
‘Unintended Consequences’The Environmental Working Group, Clean Air Task Force and Friends of the Earth argue that the program has propelled corn-based ethanol without delivering a similar boost to advanced biofuels with potentially bigger climate benefits.
Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, told a House committee last month that the RFS program, created with "good intentions," has instead wreaked "severe, unintended consequences," including the loss of prairie land and water-supply damage that threatens wildlife.
Even the NRDC that once lobbied for the RFS bemoans that "the bulk of today’s conventional corn ethanol carries grave risks to the climate, wildlife, waterways and food security." In NRDC’s "OnEarth" magazine, an essay headlined "Played for a Fuel" argues that corn-based ethanol isn’t sustainable because it requires "huge amounts" of water, fertilizer and land.
NRDC spokesman Ed Chen said the group continues to monitor the RFS "because low-carbon cellulosic biofuels can play an important role in reducing transportation pollution,” but added that the organization is “far more focused” on other carbon-cutting strategies with more immediate climate payoffs."