By Matthew Speer
In July 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) issued its first mandate for the inclusion of renewable, alternative energy sources in transportation fuels sold in the US. At that time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), roughly 16 percent of the contiguous United States was experiencing “moderate to severe drought.”
The administration’s most recent figures (June 2012) estimate that 33 percent of the contiguous United States is experiencing “severe to extreme” drought. In layman’s terms, that’s a whole lot more drought. And it’s already making the well-intentioned RFS, which was expanded with the Energy and Independence Security Act of 2007, look less than effective at achieving its primary goal: reducing the American dependence on petroleum-based fuels.
The RFS is administered by the EPA, which categorizes alternative fuels and stipulates their emissions thresholds. Most domestic ethanol, or “conventional biofuel,” is produced by a process called “dry-milling.” Starchy crops, namely corn, are ground into flour and fermented into ethanol, which is then distributed throughout the U.S., particularly to the fuel-hungry coasts. Lately, the production of ethanol is concentrated in proximity to its source: the Midwest, where the “severe to extreme” drought conditions are most vicious. Ironically, corn production is declining on a near-daily basis.
Less corn produced means that a greater fraction of the total crop must be devoted to ethanol in order to meet the RFS mandate. This year, that mandate is 15.2 billion gallons. If the drought continues, then the resultant dip in corn production – and the destabilization of corn and ethanol prices – could even result in modification to the RFS, which is currently slated to mandate the inclusion of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels in American transportation fuels by 2022. Agriculture and other industry groups affected by the decrease in corn production have already commissioned a report arguing for adjustments to the RFS based on corn production and market data.
If, indeed, the 2012 drought results in adjustments to the RFS, what does that say about the future of renewable energy in America as a whole? After all, the most viable sources of renewable energy, from wind power to solar energy to biofuels as a whole, are vulnerable to changes in climate; and climate change itself is intricately enmeshed with the need for renewable energy sources. Initiatives to minimize the impact of climate change will support the production of renewable energy, and vice versa.
The mostly widely known American initiative, the RFS, is vulnerable to climate changes that impact corn production. But ethanol is the darling of the domestic renewable energy industry for no reason other than its origins in American agriculture. “Energy independence” is the political buzzword these days, but it may behoove the U.S. to look beyond its borders when it comes to the actual production of renewable energy sources.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), best-known for penning the Kyoto Protocol (best-known as the treaty the U.S. refused to ratify) will hold a Climate Change Conference in Beijing in late 2012. The goal of the UNFCC, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions around the globe, remains grounded in scientific research and international collaboration. Although the United States may yet preserve the “observer” status it secured by refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, maybe this time, it will actually learn something. Domestic energy independence simply cannot be tied to an unstable and steadily warming climate.