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After suffering through more than a year of quarantines, stay-at-home orders, and travel lockdowns, millions of Americans have eagerly returned to the nation’s highways this summer for long-awaited vacations and road trips. As a result, gasoline demand has surged to record highs [bloomberg.com] and pump prices are at levels not seen since 2014.
In recent weeks, regular-grade gas prices averaged $3.17 per gallon [eia.gov], up almost 50 percent from the same time last year. With higher fuel prices threatening to undermine the nation’s ongoing economic recovery, it’s easy to see why the Biden administration is looking for ways to ease America’s pain at the pump.
But what’s not easy to see is why the White House recently chose to respond to higher pump prices by pushing OPEC+ countries [whitehouse.gov] to increase oil production. It was a baffling move that raised eyebrows across the political spectrum. After all, calling on countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia to boost their output of dirty, high-carbon crude oil obviously runs counter to the president’s stated goals regarding climate change, clean energy, domestic job creation and energy security.
At the same time, the administration’s ambitious electric vehicle goals are taking a hit due to geopolitical instability and uncertainty regarding the availability of minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries. The rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban regime threatens to hand one of the world’s largest deposits of lithium [cnn.com] — the most crucial mineral for batteries — over to Russia [dw.com] and China, which already dominates the world market for rare earth metals. Indeed, the Pentagon once warned that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium [nytimes.com].”
Before the Biden administration looks to OPEC+ countries or mineral-rich nations like Afghanistan, China and Bolivia for help, it has an opportunity to turn to America’s heartland for a homegrown solution. Renewable fuels like ethanol have a 40-year proven track record of success in helping to lower prices at the pump [ethanolrfa.org] while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions [ethanolrfa.org], supporting good-paying clean energy jobs [ethanolrfa.org] and curtailing crude oil imports.
Four decades’ worth of investment and innovation by ethanol producers has resulted in real breakthroughs in lower-carbon transportation fuels. Today’s corn-based ethanol reduces carbon emissions by 52 percent when compared directly to gasoline, according to a recent study [wiley.com] from the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. Another study [iop.org] by scientists from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts University similarly shows corn ethanol achieves an average carbon reduction of 46 percent compared to gasoline, with some ethanol in the market today achieving a 61 percent carbon reduction.
In response to policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), California Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and Oregon Clean Fuels Program, along with the Biden administration’s recommitment to the Paris Agreement, the pace of low-carbon innovation and investment is accelerating. We firmly believe ethanol will achieve a net-zero carbon footprint in the years ahead, as the supply chain adopts carbon capture and sequestration technologies, uses more renewable electricity and biogas to power biorefineries, and expands carbon-efficient feedstock production. In fact, the members of my organization sent a letter [ethanolrfa.org] to President Biden [thehill.com]Joe Biden [thehill.com]HASC chair says plans to evacuate citizens from Afghanistan were 'wholly inadequate' [thehill.com]US military faces growing calls to do more to evacuate Afghanistan [thehill.com] Infowars host faces misdemeanor charges over Capitol riot [thehill.com]MORE [thehill.com] in July pledging to ensure that ethanol is a fully carbon-neutral fuel source by 2050 or sooner.
For this vision to become a reality, our industry is looking to the Biden administration and Congress to take action that drives further innovation and creates certainty in the biofuels marketplace. The first step should be enforcing robust RFS volumes and resisting pressure [reuters.com] from oil refiners to waive biofuel blending requirements or push their blending obligations off [poet.com] on retail gas station owners. In addition, Congress and the administration should support the development of a national clean fuel standard, as well as provisions to expand ethanol infrastructure and production of flex-fuel vehicles that can operate on fuels containing up to 85 percent ethanol.
Before we turn to the Persian Gulf for answers to our nation’s energy and climate challenges, let’s give the American heartland a shot. The solution to high pump prices and decarbonization lies in the farm fields of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and other Midwest states — not in the oil fields of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East nations.
Geoff Cooper is the president and CEO of Renewable Fuels Association.
Uisung Lee, Hoyoung Kwon, May Wu, et al. Retrospective analysis of the U.S. corn ethanol industry for 2005–2019: implications for greenhouse gas emission reductions [open], Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining (DOI: 10.1002/bbb.2225 [doi.org])