Willis: Congress should update U.S. ethanol mandate


Martin C. Willis is a local union boilermaker and member of the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council. He will also be a Delaware delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

Few Delawareans realize that they have more corn in their car’s gas tank than they have in their kitchen cabinets and that 40% of all domestic U.S. corn production goes into producing the nation’s ethanol supply. If they did, we would be demanding our members of Congress reassess whether mandating ethanol in our transportation fuels is a sound, sustainable policy for our economy and environment. It is about time that they do.

The Renewable Fuel Standard is an outdated, decades-old, George W. Bush-era national mandate requiring ethanol to be blended into America’s transportation fuels. Corn ethanol also drives up the costs of all our transportation fuels — gasoline, diesel, jet fuel — and grocery store items. Experts say the RFS ethanol mandate can add up to 30 cents per gallon of gasoline. Droughts and floods have a major impact on the nation’s corn ethanol supply, which, of course, increases costs across the nation’s food chain.

Under the Renewable Fuel Standard, the Environmental Protection Agency determines how many billions of gallons of ethanol annually need to be blended into America’s transportation fuels. In 2023, the agency required that 15.25 billion gallons of ethanol be blended each year.

Independent refiners like the Delaware City Refinery must comply with the standard even though they have no control over where, when and how much ethanol is blended with distillate-refined transportation fuels. To be in regulatory compliance, the refinery must purchase credits called renewable identification numbers.

The gratuitous, unnecessarily complex RIN regulation only pads the nation’s major agribusiness conglomerates and “Big Oil” companies that operate corn ethanol facilities across America’s Corn Belt and sell the numbers for a substantial profit. Meanwhile, independent refiners across the USA spend more annually on the numbers than they do on all other costs — capital improvement, repairs and maintenance expenses — except crude oil.

The cost of RINs has yearly endangered tens of thousands of high-quality union jobs across the Northeast, including thousands in Delaware. A recent Opinion called on Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., to support legislation and hold hearings before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works about allowing nationwide year-round sales of E15, a fuel blend containing 15% ethanol content instead of the current standard of 10% (“Cheaper fuel could be win for state,” June 30).

Respectfully, in my opinion, I believe that this would certainly be a huge mistake for the nation’s economy and environment. These calls for more corn ethanol in our transportation fuels are ill-advised and misguided, to say the least.

The national well-funded and politically connected agribusiness lobbying firms tout studies (that they fully bankroll and conduct) claiming that corn ethanol is good for the nation’s environment. However, research published in the National Academy of Sciences says otherwise. A 2022 report revealed that the Renewable Fuel Standard resulted in the increased use of fertilizer, untreated water runoff, degradation and emissions associated with the greater land use, citing that “the carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced under the RFS is no less than gasoline and likely at least 24% higher.”

That is why reputable environmental organizations like the National Wildlife Federation oppose the standard, pointing out that it is accelerating the climate crisis. In 2022, the federation joined the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other environmental groups in petitioning Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael S. Regan to rescind the agency’s erroneous waiver allowing expanded E15 sales. They cited irreversible climate impacts.

Moreover, expanded E15 sales do not and will never lower gasoline prices! To date, E15 can already be sold anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard, including in the Diamond State. However, no gas stations choose to sell it because mid-Atlantic consumers don’t want it! E15 corn ethanol is expensive, corrosive and harmful for boats, lawnmowers, small-engine equipment and off-road motor vehicles. Calls for more ethanol in our transportation fuels are baseless and totally uneconomical to the American consumer.

Adding insult to injury, the Environmental Protection Agency found that yearlong E15 fuel sales contributed to higher levels of smog, ozone pollution and greater life cycle greenhouse gas emissions. Also, E15 will not lead to more ethanol in our nation’s transportation fuel consumption. In Iowa — the nation’s leading corn ethanol-producing state — fewer than 20% of the gasoline stations offer E15, despite the state mandating the sale of E15.

Despite these facts, politically connected agribusiness corn ethanol lobbyists in Washington, D.C., are urging the EPA and environmental champions like Sen. Carper to hold Senate committee hearings to expand E15 sales because they want to raise unachievable mandates under the fuel standard even higher. We cannot allow them to undermine Sen. Carper’s environmental legacy and force his hand to pass ill-crafted policies. This would put tens of thousands of union jobs throughout the mid-Atlantic region at risk, including thousands of high-quality jobs at the Delaware City Refinery.

As a union boilermaker for more than 35 years, I encourage Sen. Carper and the Delaware federal delegation to reconsider the nation’s ethanol mandate and its impact on working families and the environment in the Diamond State.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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