Opponents of a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) such as that proposed in Washington state say the program would be costly to implement, impossible for entities to comply with and would add to the baseline gas price. However, a nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office has also suggested there might be “adverse environmental effects” from expanding the use of certain biofuels.
Bolstering that hypothesis is a new study by the University of California-Davis, Kansas State University and the University of Wisconsin. A summary of the report was presented to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at its Feb. 15 meeting in Washington, D.C.
The study found that the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) authorized under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 led to an artificial expansion of crops used to produce biofuels, such as corn and soybean.
The RFS was expanded under the Security Act of 2007 to reduce carbon emissions by shifting away from the use of fossil fuels. However, within eight years it led to an 8.2 percent increase in the amount of corn annually planted on cropland than what would have occurred without the RFS. The program also artificially expanded total corn cropland by 2.8 million acres.
While Washington is considering a LCFS via SSHB 1110, states such as California and Oregon have already implemented similar programs based on a credit system. Entities that provide fuel with carbon intensity above the standard run deficits and must purchase credits from entities that produce biofuels with lower carbon intensities. One of the intended effects of a LCFS is to encourage the use and further production of “clean fuels.”
However, the report concluded that the expansion of biofuel-producing crops “have wide ranging environmental impacts.” The change in corn production led to an additional estimate of 3.1 million metric tons of carbon emissions, while the total land-use changes in response to the RFS added 27.1 MMT of carbon emissions. The program also led to an increase in water consumption of 16.7 billion gallons annually.
“These changes have implications for greenhouse gas emissions, habitat, and water resources,” study coauthor Nathan Hendricks said in a statement. He is an associate professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.
The RFS also caused more than 10 million acres of grassland, shrubland, wetland and forestland to be converted into cropland between 2008-2016. The report estimates that the expansion in cropland area was 76 percent larger than what would have occurred without the fuel standard program. During that same timeframe, a combined 5.4 million acres of soy and corn were planted on that converted land and released as much carbon emissions as 13 coal power plants or 11.2 million additional cars.
At the same time, the increased demand for these crops caused prices to jump an estimated 31 percent for corn, 19 percent for soybeans and 20 percent for wheat.
“There is no dispute that U.S. biofuels policy is driving environmental harm,” study coauthor Aaron Smith said in statement. Smith is a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis.
“The Renewable Fuel Standard created a strong economic incentive to increase domestic corn production to meet the federal mandate for new biofuels,” he added. “The ensuing expansion and intensification of crop agriculture has transformed the landscape, leading to a cascade of negative impacts on wildlife habitat, water resources, and the climate.”
SSHB 1110 was referred to the Rules Committee for review on Feb. 28.