The Renewable Fuel Standard: A Common Enemy of Liberals & Conservatives

The Renewable Fuel Standard offers liberals and conservatives an opportunity for agreement. It further exposes our government’s need to promote the growing resentment between Democrats and Republicans. And of course, it’s all about money.   

The Renewable Fuel Standard is a federal mandate that requires fuel refiners to blend a certain amount of biofuels, specifically corn-based ethanol, into their gasoline and diesel supplies at annually increasing levels.

This means that our government has given ethanol producers a guaranteed market. Do you have a similar guarantee in your own private business affairs? I sure don’t. As a bartender I don’t benefit from a law that states 15% of all cocktails must be purchased and enjoyed specifically at my bar. I imagine that wouldn’t sit well with the other bartenders in my town.

Federally mandated subsidies can have far-reaching consequences and more often than not they end up reaching into your wallet. In 2014 the Government Accountability Office reported that the net cost of the Renewable Fuel Standard is somewhere between $64 and $77 billion. There are 122 million taxpayers in the United States. That’s about $630 per person. For what? The RFS was supposed to stretch our fuel supply. It was supposed to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It was supposed to reduce greenhouse gases. The RFS has done none of those things. What it has done is set off a chain of unintended consequences that reach into households and farms across the globe.

The primary ingredient in the production of ethanol is corn. The RFS contributes to furthering the starvation of the global poor by diverting 40% of America’s corn crop to the production of ethanol. That same amount of corn could feed more than 400 million people, or half of those who face starvation every day. America’s ethanol requirement does real harm to our environment. EPA reports confirm that the ethanol mandates have contributed to increased water pollution in the Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico. This pollution is harmful to local ecosystems, kills aquatic life, and damages local economies dependent on those resources. Farmers throughout the Prairie Pothole Region in the Midwest have shifted land into corn production from other crops and native prairie, contributing to wildlife habitat loss.

Ethanol-blended fuel deteriorates at a quicker rate than pure gasoline, and creates a thick residue called shellack that clogs engine filters and valves, especially in the smaller, two-cycle utility engines that power lawnmowers, chainsaws, and outboard motor boats. Car engines are more sophisticated and newer models can handle the fallout of ethanol blended gas, but there remain many older models that cannot.

For all of the adverse effects of the Renewable Fuel Standard, less than 5% of the biofuel target was achieved in the most recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

And yet Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and just about every other Democrat and Republican fully support not just maintaining the RFS, but increasing it. The RFS reveals the true character of a politician, and it reminds us just how important it is to look beyond the rhetoric of our elected officials.  

The RFS is the embodiment of crony capitalism, or corporate welfare. Every year hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars go to agricultural corporations and individuals that make in excess of $1 million a year. Farm subsidies aren’t distributed on the basis of need but rather the amount of crops grown, which means that the largest farms receive the most subsidies. Bernie Sanders has gained broad support by cultivating resentment towards the wealthy, or at least, a carefully selected segment of the most affluent like bankers, for example. But on average farmers make more than bankers. In fact, the average salary of a farmer is twice that of the average American worker.

The Renewable Fuel Standard should be important to liberals demanding that the wealthy “pay their fair share,” and its an issue that they would actually align with conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz on. During his presidential campaign Cruz frequently said that “we ought to be developing oil, gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar, ethanol, biofuels and all of the resources that we have instead of allowing Washington to pick winners and losers.” This describes the level playing field, the equality that liberalism claims to stand for. Parenthetically, it affirms the conservative belief that wealth and success can be achieved through diligence, and hard work, and that the freedom to compete spurs innovation.

For those on the right who believe that Donald Trump is fighting for the forgotten men and women of America in Flyover Country that spend their lives toiling in fields, growing our food – then the Renewable Fuel Standard should be a crucially important issue as well. The president has the authority to call for abolishing the Renewable Fuel Standard but last week the Trump administration chose to keep the mandate in place.

Ending the Renewable Fuel Standard doesn’t mean that ethanol and other biofuels would no longer be used or produced in the United States. The Congressional Budget Office has acknowledged that without the RFS the U.S. would still use 13-14 billion gallons of biofuels. Ending the RFS would grant the freedom to determine what works best for us instead of allowing of lobbyists, unelected officials and bureaucrats to make that determination.

If we truly value small business, we should demand the freedom their flourishing requires. We’ve all know the pleasures of an independent business – the service at your neighborhood hardware store, your trusted mechanic – and we’ve all experienced the effects of federally funded services that have no competition. Anyone who has been to the DMV knows that when there are no other options federal employees are free to give you business rather than tend to it.

If we could stop pointing at one another and yelling “fascist!” and “treason!” perhaps we’d see that there are agreements to be had, and that those agreements don’t come from aligning ourselves with politicians who thrive on our anger and mistrust. The Renewable Fuel Standard is not as exciting as chanting “Lock her up!” or “Yes, we can!” – a fact that is not lost on our elected officials – but it is certainly more important. So long as we behave like memes in a comment section the phrase Stronger Together will apply only to the two major political parties.

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