Last month the well-intentioned but problematic Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program turned 10 years old. The goal of the RFS is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below what is emitted by fossil fuel-based gasoline by including biofuels in their formulation. Unfortunately, good intentions have led to many unintended consequences and the increased demand for corn ethanol has led to large-scale conversion of natural areas and wildlife habitat into cropland, as well as increased carbon emissions.
New Jersey isn’t a major corn producer that conjures up images of monoculture cropland as far as the eye can see. However, grassland, wetland and forest conversion for biofuels across the Midwest and Prairie Pothole regions—which destroyed 7.3 million acres or an area larger than Massachusetts between 2008-2012—still impacts our state.
First, the RFS mandate is destroying biologically diverse native habitats that birds and other wildlife depend on for breeding, migration, and food. Some of these same birds, such as several species of waterfowl, spend part of their life cycle in New Jersey.
And second, a recent study shows that plowing up native prairie and cutting down trees to plant biofuel crops released as much carbon in four years as the emissions from an additional 20 million cars on the road. Anything contributing to climate change is a concern to our mid-Atlantic state, which is experiencing increased frequency and severity of coastal flooding and stronger storms.
A decade removed from RFS beginnings has given ample time for evaluation and it’s time to reform the program. As a start, Congress must work to promote biofuels made from sources other than corn, and prohibit conversion of rare native habitat that is critical for wildlife to biofuel cropland.