Is EPA coming to its senses?

Maybe.

For the first time, agency officials are proposing a reduction in the 2104 Renewable Fuel Standards, a move that would scale back the volume of bio-based ethanol required to be added to the nation’s fuel supply under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

Under that law, some 18.15 billion gallons of ethanol would be required to be added to domestic gasoline. But EPA is now proposing to lower that to only 15 to 15.5 billion gallons.

Is that because the mandate to divert millions of acres of corn production from livestock feed and other food-related uses to ethanol production is a bad idea that neither cures our dependence on foreign oil, nor offers better mileage for motorists, nor mitigates rising food prices for consumers?

Uh, no—not really. According to an EPA statement last week, it’s all about an (alleged) “blend wall” that’s forcing the agency’s hand.

“The proposal seeks to put the RFS program on a steady path forward—ensuring the continued growth of renewable fuels while recognizing the practical limits on ethanol blending,” EPA stated on its website. The blend wall refers to the difficulty in incorporating increasing amounts of ethanol into the transportation fuel supply at volumes exceeding those achieved by the sale of nearly all gasoline as E10 (gasoline containing 10% ethanol), since “overall gasoline consumption in the United States is less than anticipated” when Congress launched the program in 2007.

All that is true, but none of it addresses the underlying issue here: What is the benefit of diverting a significant portion of our national agricultural capacity from food to fuel production? Six years ago, when reducing the country’s virtual enslavement to Mideast oil-producing countries was a political hot button, it might have made sense to temporarily mandate the diversion of agricultural feedstocks into biofuel development.

But since then, the availability of new petroleum sources in North America from oil shale extraction, coupled with increased supplies of natural gas used to fuel buses, trucks and other commercial fleets, significantly turned down the temperature in Washington for a massive, emergency biofuel mandate. That, plus the fact that the recession and a concurrent overall improvement in average gas mileage for passenger cars and trucks—duly noted by EPA in its position statement—resulted in less political pressure and less of a real requirement for biofuels to replace a percentage of the gasoline sold at the pump.

And those developments don’t yet touch on the twin factors that, without even considering supply and demand, are enough to refute the rationale for the RFS in the first place.

An unsustainable policy

First of all, corn-based ethanol doesn’t deliver a heck of a lot of additional energy. When the total inputs required to grow a bushel of corn, transport it to a processing plant, produce the ethanol, transport, blend and distribute the resulting fuel, the best estimates calculate a net energy gain of only 25 percent to 30 percent. Other sources—critics, to be sure, of the very concept of growing an edible food crop only to burn it up in our cars and trucks—claim that the net energy gain is even smaller, maybe negligible.

Not surprisingly, the ethanol mandate has bolstered the price of corn and created something of a windfall for Midwestern farmers. Thus, it’s understandable when Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association, argued that reducing the RFS “would be devastating for family farmers and the entire rural economy.”

Or when Sen. Debbie Stabinow (D-Minn.), chairperson of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, released a statement noting that, “The so-called ‘blend wall’ is a crisis manufactured by the oil industry,” and that lowering the RFS “would cost thousands of good-paying, clean energy jobs.”

You expect heated rhetoric from politicians with farm-country constituents or trade-group officials whose members are benefiting from government policies that drive up the price of their crops.

None of those statements distracts from the reality here: Taking perhaps our single most important food and feed crop and essentially distilling it into an inefficient liquid fuel that neither solves our energy supply issues crisis nor puts the country on the road to energy independence—while it drives up costs for producers and food prices for consumers—isn’t exactly a stroke of policy genius.

Understandably, there are stakeholders who benefit handsomely from the federal ethanol mandate, and they won’t surrender without a hellacious struggle. But at this juncture, it ought to be clear where our energy policies need to be focused.

We need to invest on developing higher efficiency feedstocks for biofuel production, advance cellulosic energy research and ramp up production of hybrid and/or fully electric vehicles that can eventually be powered by electricity from hydro, solar, wind turbine, thermal, biomass and even tidal energy sources.

To keep growing massive amounts of corn that end up feeding our cars, not our families, is ludicrous, to say the least.

Just don’t expect the ethanol boosters to stop talking up their golden goose anytime soon.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.