Selected Issues Related to an Expansion of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)
Selected Issues Related to an Expansion of the
Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)
Updated March 31, 2008
Brent D. Yacobucci
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Specialist in Agricultural Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Selected Issues Related to an Expansion of the
Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)
High petroleum and gasoline prices, concerns over global climate change, and
the desire to promote domestic rural economies have greatly increased interest in
biofuels as an alternative to petroleum in the U.S. transportation sector. Biofuels,
most notably corn ethanol, have grown significantly in the past few years as a
component of U.S. motor fuel supply. Ethanol, the most commonly used biofuel, is
blended in nearly half of all U.S. gasoline (at the 10% level or lower in most cases).
However, current biofuel supply only represents about 4% of total gasoline demand.
While recent proposals have set the goal of significantly expanding biofuel
supply in the coming decades, questions remain about the ability of the U.S. biofuel
industry to meet rapidly increasing demand. Current U.S. biofuel supply relies
almost exclusively on ethanol produced from Midwest corn. In 2007, 24% of the
U.S. corn crop was used for ethanol production. To meet some of the higher ethanol
production goals would require more corn than the United States currently produces,
if all of the envisioned ethanol was made from corn.
Due to the concerns with significant expansion in corn-based ethanol supply,
interest has grown in expanding the market for biodiesel produced from soybeans and
other oil crops. However, a significant increase in U.S. biofuels would likely require
a movement away from food and grain crops as feedstocks. Other biofuel feedstock
sources, including cellulosic biomass, are promising, but technological barriers make
their future uncertain.
The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA, P.L. 110-140)
requires ever-larger amounts of biofuels produced from feedstocks other than corn
starch, including sugarcane, oil crops, and cellulose, and promotes the development
of these fuels. EISA requires the use of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels
annually in 2022, of which only 15 billion gallons can be ethanol from corn starch.
The remaining 21 billion gallons are to be so-called “advanced biofuels.” The
previous RFS — the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58) — required the use of
only 7.5 billion gallons in 2012, increasing to an expected 8.6 billion gallons in 2022,
of which only 250 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels would be required.
Issues facing the U.S. biofuels industry include potential agricultural
“feedstock” supplies, the associated market and environmental effects of a major
shift in U.S. agricultural production; the energy supply needed to grow feedstocks
and process them into fuel, and barriers to expanded infrastructure needed to deliver
more and more biofuels to the market. A key question is whether a renewable fuel
mandate is the most effective policy to promote the above goals. This report outlines
some of the current supply issues facing biofuels industries, including implications
for agricultural feedstocks, infrastructure concerns, energy supply for biofuel
production, and fuel price uncertainties.
In troduction ......................................................1
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)...................................3
RFS in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.............3
RFS as Public Policy.......................................4
The Expanded RFS Defined.....................................4
Potential Issues with an Expanded RFS.................................6
Overview of Long-Run Corn Ethanol Supply Issues...................6
Overview of Non-Corn-Starch-Ethanol RFS Issues...................7
Unintended Policy Incentives of the “Advanced Biofuels” Mandate..8
Potential Benefits Are Vast..................................8
Cellulosic Biofuel Production Uncertainties.....................8
Energy Supply Issues...........................................9
Natural Gas Demand......................................10
Greenhouse Gas Emissions.....................................12
Food versus Fuel.........................................13
Domestic Food Prices.....................................16
International Food Prices...................................17
Infrastructure and Distribution Issues.............................19
Higher-Level Ethanol Blends................................20
Vehicle Infrastructure Issues................................21
List of Tables
Table 1. U.S. Production of Biofuels from Various Feedstocks..............2
Table 2. EISA 2007 Expansion of the Renewable Fuel Standard.............5
Table 3. U.S. Farm Prices for Major Agricultural Commodities............15
Selected Issues Related to an Expansion of
the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)
High petroleum and gasoline prices, concerns over global climate change, and
the desire to promote domestic rural economies have raised interest in biofuels as an
alternative to petroleum in the U.S. transportation sector. Biofuels, most notably
corn-based ethanol, have grown significantly in the past few years as a component
of U.S. motor fuels. Nearly half of all U.S. gasoline contains some ethanol (mostly
blended at the 10% level or lower). However, current supply represents only about
4% of annual gasoline demand on a volume basis, and only about 3% on an energy
basis. In 2006, the United States consumed roughly 5 billion gallons of biofuels
(mostly ethanol); this 5 billion gallons was blended into roughly 65 billion gallons
of gasoline. Total annual gasoline consumption is roughly 140 billion gallons.
Recent proposals, including President Bush’s goal in his 2007 State of the
Union Address, aim to expand biofuel supply significantly in the coming decades.
The President’s goal would be to expand consumption from 5 billion gallons in 2007
to 35 billion gallons in 2017. While this proposal included not just biofuels but
alternative fuels in general (including fuels from coal or natural gas), it would likely
mean a significant growth in biofuels production over the next 10 years. Other
legislative proposals would require significant expansion of biofuels production in
the coming decades; some proposals would require 30 billion gallons of biofuels
alone by 2030 or 60 billion gallons by 2050. The Energy Independence and Security
Act of 2007 (EISA, P.L. 110-140) requires the use of 36 billion gallons in 2022,1
including 21 billion gallons of “advanced biofuels.” The law limits ethanol from
corn starch to 15 billion gallons beginning in 2015.
Current U.S. biofuel supply relies almost exclusively on ethanol produced from
Midwest corn (Table 1). Other fuels that play a smaller role include ethanol from
Brazilian sugar, biodiesel from U.S. soybeans, and ethanol from U.S. sorghum. A
significant increase in U.S. biofuels would likely require a movement away from
food and grain crops. For example, U.S. ethanol production in 2006 consumed
1 The term “advanced biofuel” comes from current legislation in the 110th Congress,
including the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). In many cases, the
definition of “advanced biofuel” includes mature technologies and fuels that are currently
produced in large amounts. For example, the EISA definition of “advanced biofuel”
includes ethanol from sugarcane, despite the fact that Brazilian sugar growers have been
producing fuel ethanol for decades. EISA defines “advanced biofuels” as biofuels other than
ethanol derived from corn starch. Possible fuels include biodiesel from oil seeds, ethanol
from sugarcane, and ethanol from cellulosic materials (including non-starch parts of the corn
plant, such as the stalk).
roughly 20% of the U.S. corn crop. If only corn is used, expanding ethanol
production to 35 billion gallons would require more corn than the United States
currently produces, which would be infeasible. Corn (and other grains) have myriad
other uses, and such a shift would have drastic consequences for most agricultural
markets, including grains (since corn would compete with other grains for land),
livestock (since the cost of animal feed would likely increase), and land (since total
harvested acreage would likely increase). In addition to agricultural effects, such an
increase in corn-based ethanol would likely affect fuel costs (since biofuels tend to
be more expensive than petroleum fuels), energy supply (natural gas is a key input
into corn production), and the environment (since the expansion of corn-based
ethanol production raises many environmental questions). These concerns are
Table 1. U.S. Production of Biofuels from Various Feedstocks
FuelFeedstockU.S. Production in 2006
EthanolCorn4.9 billion gallons
Sorghumless than 100 million gallons
Cane sugarNo production
(656 million gallons imported from Brazil
and Caribbean countries)
(one demonstration plant in Canada)
BiodieselSoybean oilapproximately 200 million gallons
Other vegetable oilsless than 10 million gallons
Recycled greaseless than 10 million gallons
ButanolCellulose, otherNo production
Sources: Renewable Fuels Association; National Biodiesel Board; CRS analysis.
Due to concerns over the significant expansion in corn-based ethanol supply,
interest has grown in expanding the market for biodiesel (a diesel substitute produced
from vegetable and animal oils) and spurring the development of motor fuels
produced from cellulosic materials (including grasses, trees, and agricultural and
municipal wastes). However, all of these so-called “advanced biofuel” technologies
are currently even more expensive than corn-based ethanol (with the exception of
ethanol produced from Brazilian sugarcane).
In addition to expanding domestic production of biofuels, there is some interest
in expanding imports of sugar-based ethanol from Brazil and other countries.
However, ethanol from Brazil is currently subject to a $0.54 per gallon tariff that in
most years is a significant barrier to direct Brazilian imports. Some Brazilian ethanol
can be brought into the United States duty free if it is dehydrated (reprocessed) in
Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) countries.2 Up to 7% of the U.S. ethanol market
could be supplied duty-free in this fashion, although historically ethanol dehydrated
in CBI countries has only represented about 2% of the total U.S. market.3
Any fuel produced from biological materials (e.g., food crops, agricultural
residues, municipal waste) is generally referred to as a “biofuel.” More specifically,
the term generally refers to liquid transportation fuels. The most significant biofuel
in the United States is ethanol produced from U.S. corn.4 Approximately 6.5 billion
gallons of ethanol were produced in the United States in 2007, mostly from corn.
Other domestic feedstocks for ethanol include grain sorghum and sweet sorghum;
imported ethanol (435 million gallons in 2007) is usually produced from sugar cane
in Brazil. Ethanol is generally blended into gasoline at the 10% level (E10) or lower.
Ethanol can be used in purer forms such as E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) in
vehicles specially designed for its use, although E85 represents less than 1% of U.S.
After ethanol, biodiesel is the next most significant biofuel in the United States,
although 2007 U.S. production is estimated at only about 580 million gallons.
Biodiesel is a diesel fuel substitute produced from vegetable and animal oils (mainly
soybean oil in the United States), as well as recycled cooking grease. Other biofuels
with the potential to play a role in the U.S. market include ethanol and diesel fuel
substitutes produced from various biomass feedstocks containing cellulose.
However, these “cellulosic” biofuels are currently prohibitively expensive relative
to conventional ethanol and biodiesel. Other potential biofuels include other alcohols
(e.g., methanol and butanol) produced from biomass.
This report outlines some of the current issues related to the renewable fuel
standard (RFS) established in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58) and
expanded in the EISA of 2007, including implications for agricultural feedstocks,
infrastructure constraints, environmental concerns, energy supply issues, and fuel
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)
RFS in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007
Section 202 of EISA requires the use of 9 billion gallons of renewable fuels in
only 15 billion gallons can be ethanol from corn starch. Any additional volume will
2 For more information on CBI imports, see CRS Report RS21930, Ethanol Imports and the
Caribbean Basin Initiative, by Brent D. Yacobucci.
3 In 2006 ethanol prices rose sharply, and direct imports from Brazil rose sharply, despite
4 For more information on ethanol, see CRS Report RL33290, Fuel Ethanol: Background
and Public Policy Issues, by Brent D. Yacobucci.
not receive a production tax credit. The remaining 21 billion gallons are to be so-
called “advanced biofuels.” Currently, production of advanced biofuels is limited to
ethanol derived from sugar and biodiesel. Previously, the Energy Policy Act of 2005
(P.L. 109-58) required, starting in 2006, the use of 4.0 billion gallons of renewable
fuel in gasoline, increasing to 7.5 billion in 2012. Although the RFS has been called
an “ethanol mandate,” there is no explicit requirement to use ethanol. Although there
are specific requirements for the use of biodiesel and other renewable fuels, it is
expected that, in the early years, the vast majority of the RFS will be met using
ethanol produced from corn starch.
RFS as Public Policy. The expansion in the RFS could have significant
policy implications. Issues include questions of energy/petroleum security, pollutant
and greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural commodity and food market effects, land
use and conservation, and infrastructure costs. Proponents and opponents of
mandated biofuel use both claim that an RFS would promote or run counter to the
general public interest on several different policy fronts. For example, supporters of
an RFS claim it would serve several public policy interests including:
!reduced investment risk by guaranteeing demand for a projected
period (such risk would otherwise keep significant investment
capital on the sidelines);
!enhanced energy security via the production of liquid fuel from a
renewable domestic source resulting in decreased reliance on
imported fossil fuels (the U.S. currently imports over half of its
petroleum, two-thirds of which is consumed by the transportation
!enhanced environmental benefits (non-toxic, biodegradable, etc.).
Critics of an RFS have taken issue with many specific aspects of biofuel
production and use, but a general public policy criticism of the RFS is that, by
picking the “winner,” policymakers may exclude or retard the development of other,
potentially more preferable alternative energy sources.5 They contend that biofuels
are given a huge advantage via billions of dollars of annual subsidies which distort
investment markets by redirecting venture capital and other investment dollars away
from competing alternative energy sources. Instead, these critics have argued for a
more “technology neutral” policy such as a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system of
carbon credits, or a floor price on imported petroleum.
The Expanded RFS Defined
This report examines the specific issues regarding the implementation of an
extended RFS as contained in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007
(EISA, P.L. 110-140), but does not address the broader public policy issue
surrounding how best to support U.S. energy policy. The expanded RFS includes all
5 For example, see Bruce A. Babcock, “High Crop Prices, Ethanol Mandates, and the Public
Good: Do They Coexist?” Iowa Ag Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 2007; and Robert Hahn
and Caroline Cecot, “The Benefits and Costs of Ethanol,” Working Paper 07-17, AEI-
Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, November 2007.
motor fuel, as well as heating oil (Table 2). The current RFS mandate would be
expanded to 13.2 billion gallons (bgal.) in 2012 (compared with the current RFS of
7.5 bgal.); 15 bgal. by 2015; and 36 bgal. in 2022. However, the corn-based ethanol
share of the expanded RFS would be capped at 15 bgal. Starting in 2016, the
expanded RFS would increase the RFS by an additional 3 bgal. annually, to be
derived entirely from “advanced biofuels” — defined as biofuels derived from
feedstocks other than corn starch. The advanced biofuel share increases to 21 bgal.
by 2022. An additional requirement of the expanded RFS is that renewable fuels
produced in facilities that commence operation after enactment must achieve at least
a 20% reduction in life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions relative to gasoline (50% for
Table 2. EISA 2007 Expansion of the
Renewable Fuel Standard
YearPrevious RFS Biofuel mandate forPortion to be fromCap on
(billion gallons)motor fuel, homeadvanced biofuelcorn starch-
heating oil, and boiler(i.e., not corn starch) derived ethanol
fuel (billion gallons)(billion gallons)(billion gallons)
2006 4.0 4.00 0.00 4.0
2007 4.7 4.70 0.00 4.7
2008 5.4 9.00 0.00 9.0
2009 6.1 11.10 0.60 10.5
2010 6.8 12.95 0.95 12.0
2011 7.4 13.95 1.35 12.6
2012 7.5 15.20 2.00 13.2
The EISA RFS involves two distinct components — a corn-starch-ethanol RFS
and a non-corn-starch-ethanol RFS — that are best analyzed separately because the
various supply and demand factors affecting their development also are fairly
Potential Issues with an Expanded RFS
Overview of Long-Run Corn Ethanol Supply Issues
The U.S. ethanol industry has shown rapid growth in recent years, with national
production increasing from 1.8 billion gallons in 2001 to 6.5 billion in 2007. This
rapid growth — which is projected to continue for the foreseeable future — has
important consequences for U.S. and international fuel, feed, and food markets.
Corn accounts for about 98% of the feedstocks used in ethanol production in the
United States. USDA estimates that 3.2 billion bushels of corn (or 24% of the 2007
corn crop) will be used to produce ethanol during the September 2007 to August
2008 corn marketing year.6 As of February 22, 2008, existing U.S. ethanol plant
capacity was a reported 8.2 billion gallons per year, with an additional capacity of 5.2
billion gallons under construction.7 Thus, total annual U.S. ethanol production
capacity in existence or under construction as of February 22, 2008, was 13.4 billion
gallons. This production capacity exceeds the 13.0 billion gallon supply required in
ethanol use will likely require more than 4 billion bushels in 2008 and approach, or
possibly exceed, 5 billion bushels by 2010.8 In 2007, U.S. corn production was a
record 13.1 billion bushels.
The ethanol-driven surge in corn demand has been associated with a sharp rise
in corn prices. For example, the futures contract for March 2007 corn on the Chicago
Board of Trade rose from $2.50 per bushel in September 2006 to a contract high of
over $4.16 per bushel in January 2007 (a rise of 66%). Although a record U.S. corn
harvest eased upward pressure on corn prices slightly during 2007, by November
Both USDA and the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI)
(Table 3), in their annual agricultural baseline reports, project corn prices to remain
well above $3.00 per bushel through 2016 compared with an average farm price of
$2.15 during the previous 10-year period (1997-2006).
This sharp rise in corn prices owes its origins largely to increasing corn demand
spurred by the rapid expansion of corn-based ethanol production capacity in the
United States since mid-2006. The rapid growth in ethanol capacity has been fueled
by both strong energy prices and a variety of government incentives, regulations, and
programs. Major federal incentives include a tax credit of 51 cents to fuel blenders
for every gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline; the Renewable Fuel Standard; and
6 USDA, WAOB, World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) Report, Feb.
7 See Renewable Fuels Association, Industry Statistics, at [http://www.ethanolrfa.org/
8 FAPRI, Baseline Update for U.S. Agricultural Markets, FAPRI-MU report #28-07,August
the 54 cents per gallon most-favored-nation duty on most imported ethanol.9 A
recent survey of federal and state government subsidies in support of ethanol
production reported that the total annual federal support fell somewhere in the range
of $5.1 to $6.8 billion per year.10
The new RFS in EISA will increase these subsidies dramatically during the life
of the program. Based on CRS calculations, federal RFS subsidies will exceed $20
billion in 2022. Total liability from 2008 through 2022 is estimated at $181 billion.
Market participants, economists, and biofuels skeptics have begun to question
the need for continued large federal incentives in support of ethanol production,
particularly when the sector would have been profitable during much of 2006 and
2007 without such subsidies.11 Their concerns focus on the potential for widespread
unintended consequences that might result from excessive federal incentives adding
to the rapid expansion of ethanol production capacity and the demand for corn to feed
future ethanol production. These questions extend to issues concerning the ability
of the gasoline-marketing infrastructure to accommodate more ethanol in fuel, the
likelihood of modifications in engine design, the environmental impacts, and other
Overview of Non-Corn-Starch-Ethanol RFS Issues
Although most references to “advanced biofuels” involve cellulosic ethanol,
much of the “advanced biofuels” component of the EISA RFS may be met by
essentially any non-corn-starch-derived biofuel. News reports often refer to
cellulosic ethanol as “nearing a break-through” or “just around the corner” but the
reality is that there is considerable uncertainty about the speed with which this
technology will become commercially viable (even with substantial government
support). Many scientists still suggest that commercial realization of cellulosic
ethanol is 5 to 15 years down the road.12 Although research is ongoing, presently
there are no commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel plants in the United States, and there
are only a few demonstration-scale plants in the United States and Canada.13 A major
9 For more information on incentives (both tax and non-tax) for ethanol, see CRS Report
RL33572, Biofuels Incentives: A Summary of Federal Programs, by Brent D. Yacobucci.
10 Koplow, Doug. Biofuels — At What Cost? Government Support for Ethanol and
Biodiesel in the United States, Global Subsidies Initiative of the International Institute for
Sustainable Development, Geneva, Switzerland, October 2006; available at
[ h t t p : / / www.gl oba l s ubs i d i e s .or g] .
11 Chris Hurt, Wally Tyner, and Otto Doering, Department of Agricultural Economics,
Purdue University, Economics of Ethanol, December 2006, West Lafayette, IN.
12 For example, the Department of Energy’s goal is to make cellulosic biofuels cost-
competitive with corn ethanol by 2012. Other groups are less optimistic.
13 However, on February 28, 2007, DOE announced availability of $385 million in grant
funding for six commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants in six states. If operational,
combined capacity of these six plants would be 130 million gallons per year. DOE, DOE
Selects Six Cellulosic Ethanol Plants for Up to $385 Million in Federal Funding, February
barrier to cellulosic fuel production is that production costs remain significantly
higher than for corn ethanol or other alternative fuels. Currently, various production
processes are prohibitively expensive, including physical, chemical, enzymatic, and
microbial treatment and conversion of these feedstocks into motor fuel.
Unintended Policy Incentives of the “Advanced Biofuels” Mandate.
The uncertainty concerning cellulosic ethanol production raises the stakes for a
government mandate on its use. If cellulosic ethanol production is unable to advance
rapidly enough to meet the RFS mandate for non-corn-starch ethanol, then other
unexpected biofuel sources may step in and fill the void, such as:
!domestic sorghum-starch ethanol whose production may expand
across the prairie states and in other regions less suitable for corn
!costly domestic sugar-beet ethanol or even costlier domestic
biodiesel production may be undertaken to fill the mandate; or
!imports of Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol could expand.
Potential Benefits Are Vast. Ethanol and biodiesel produced from cellulosic
feedstocks, such as prairie grasses and fast-growing trees or agricultural waste, have
the potential to improve the energy and environmental effects of U.S. biofuels while
offering significant cost savings on the production side (e.g., high-yielding, grown
on marginal land, perennial rather than annual). Further, moving away from feed
and food crops to dedicated energy crops could avoid some of the agricultural supply
and price concerns associated with corn ethanol (as discussed later in this report).
A key potential benefit of many cellulosic feedstocks is that many can be grown
without chemicals. Reducing or eliminating chemical fertilizers would address one
of the largest energy inputs for corn-based ethanol production. Using biomass to
power a biofuel production plant could further reduce fossil fuel inputs. Improving
the net energy balance of ethanol would also reduce net fuel-cycle greenhouse gas
emissions, although land use change has also been raised as a potential cause of
increased greenhouse gas emissions depending on the type of land used for the
Cellulosic Biofuel Production Uncertainties. There are substantial
uncertainties regarding both the costs of production for such feedstock as well as the
costs of producing biofuel from them. Perennial crops are often slow to establish and
can take several years before a marketable crop is produced. Crops heavy in
cellulose tend to be bulky and represent significant problems in terms of harvesting,
transporting, and storing. Seasonality issues involving the operation of a biofuel
plant year-round based on a four- or five-month harvest period of biomass suggest
that bulkiness is likely to matter a great deal. In addition, most marginal lands (i.e.,
the low-cost biomass production zones) are located far from major urban markets,
bringing the plant location choice versus ethanol transportation issue into play.
Furthermore, increases in per-acre yields would be required to make most
cellulosic energy crops for fuel production economically competitive. Questions
remain whether high yields can be achieved without the use of fertilizers and
pesticides. Another question is whether there is sufficient feedstock supply available.
USDA estimates that, by 2030, 1.3 billion tons of biomass could be available for
bioenergy production (including electricity from biomass, and fuels from corn and
cellulose).14 From that, enough biofuels could be produced to replace roughly 70
billion gallons of gasoline per year (about 4.5 million barrels per day). However, this
projection assumes significant increases in per-acre yields and, according to USDA,
should be seen as an upper bound on what is possible. Further, new harvesting
machinery would need to be developed to guarantee an economic supply of cellulosic
In addition to the above concerns, other potential environmental drawbacks
associated with cellulosic fuels must be addressed, such as the potential for soil
erosion, runoff, and the spread of invasive species (many potential biofuel crops are
invasive species when introduced into non-native localities). In the near term, the
obvious choice of using corn stover to fuel existing corn ethanol plants has its own
set of environmental trade-offs, paramount of which is the dilemma of sacrificing soil
fertility gains from no- or minimum-tillage corn production.
Energy Supply Issues
Biofuels are not primary energy sources. Energy stored in biological material
(through photosynthesis) must be converted into a more useful, portable fuel. This
conversion requires energy. The amount and types of energy used to produce
biofuels, and the feedstocks for biofuel production, are of key concern. Because of
the input energy requirements, the energy and environmental benefits of corn ethanol,
particularly, may be limited.
Energy Balance. A frequent argument for the use of ethanol as a motor fuel
is that it reduces U.S. reliance on oil imports, making the U.S. less vulnerable to a
fuel embargo of the sort that occurred in the 1970s. However, while corn ethanol use
displaces petroleum, its overall effect on total energy consumption is less clear. To
analyze the net energy consumption of ethanol, the entire fuel cycle must be
considered. The fuel cycle consists of all inputs and processes involved in the
development, delivery and final use of the fuel. For corn-based ethanol, these inputs
include the energy needed to produce fertilizers, operate farm equipment, transport
corn, convert corn to ethanol, and distribute the final product. Some studies find a
significant positive energy balance of 1.5 or greater — in other words, the energy
contained in a gallon of corn ethanol is 50% higher than the amount of energy needed
14 Oak Ridge National Laboratory for DOE and USDA, Biomass as a Feedstock for a
Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual
Supply, April 2005, Oak Ridge, TN.
15 For example, the study assumes roughly 400 million tons of biomass from agricultural
residues. To economically supply those residues to biofuel producers, farm equipment
manufacturers likely would need to develop one-pass harvesters that could collect and
separate crops and crop residues at the same time.
to produce and distribute it. However, other studies suggest that the amount of
energy needed to produce ethanol is greater than the amount of energy obtained from
its combustion. A review of research studies on ethanol’s energy balance and
greenhouse gas emissions found that most studies give corn-based ethanol a slight
positive energy balance of about 1.2.16
If, instead, biomass was used to produce biofuels, the energy balance could be
improved. It is expected that most biofuel feedstocks other than corn will require far
less nitrogen fertilizer (produced from natural gas). Further, if biomass were used to
provide process energy at the biofuel refinery, then the energy balance could be even
greater. Some estimates are that cellulosic ethanol could have an energy balance of
8.0 or more.17 Similarly high energy balances have been calculated for sugarcane
ethanol and biodiesel.
An expanded RFS would certainly displace petroleum consumption, but the
overall effect on fossil fuel consumption is questionable, especially if there is a large
reliance on corn-based ethanol. EISA requires an increasing amount of “advanced
biofuels” resulting in reduced fossil fuel consumption relative to gasoline. As the
share of advanced biofuels grows, this effect accelerates. However, by 2022,
advanced biofuels will likely represent less than 10% of gasoline energy demand, so
the total amount of fossil energy displaced would be less than the expected growth
in fossil energy consumption from passenger transportation over the same time
Natural Gas Demand. As ethanol production increases, the energy needed
to process the corn into ethanol, which is derived primarily from natural gas in the
United States, can be expected to increase. For example, if the entire 4.9 billion
gallons of ethanol produced in 2006 used natural gas as a processing fuel, it would19
have required an estimated 240 to 290 billion cubic feet (cu. ft.) of natural gas. If
the entire 2006 corn crop of 10.5 billion bushels were converted into ethanol, the
energy requirements would be equivalent to approximately 1.4 to 1.7 trillion cu. ft.
of natural gas. This would have represented about 6% to 8% of total U.S. natural gas20
consumption, which was an estimated 22.2 trillion cu. ft. in 2005. The United
States has been a net importer of natural gas since the early 1980s. A significant
16 Alexander E. Farrell, Richard J. Plevin, Brian T. Turner, Andrew D. Jones, Michael
O’Hare, and Daniel M. Kammen, “Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental
Goals,” Science, Jan. 27, 2006, pp. 506-508.
17 David Andress, Ethanol Energy Balances. November 2002.
18 For example, EIA projects that motor gasoline consumption will increase 22% between
19 CRS calculations based on energy usage rates of 49,733 Btu/gal of ethanol from Shapouri
(2004), roughly 60,000 Btu/gal from Farrell (2006). Hosein Shapouri and Andrew
McAloon, USDA, Office of the Chief Economist, The 2001 Net Energy Balance of Corn-
Ethanol, 2004, Washington; Farrell, op. cit.
20 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Information Administration (EIA), Annual
Energy Outlook 2006 with Projections to 2030, Table 1-Total Energy Supply and
Disposition Summary, Washington; at [http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/index.html].
increase in its use as a processing fuel in the production of ethanol — and a feedstock
for fertilizer production — would likely increase prices and imports of natural gas.
The EISA RFS proposal boosts corn ethanol production to 15 billion gallons by
advanced biofuels account for increases in renewable fuel use and demand for natural
gas will stabilize.
Energy Security.21 Despite the fact that ethanol displaces gasoline, the
benefits to energy security from ethanol are not certain. As stated above, while
roughly 20% of the U.S. corn crop is used for ethanol, ethanol only accounts for
approximately 2% of gasoline consumption on an energy equivalent basis.22 The
import share of U.S. petroleum consumption was estimated at 54% in 2004, and is
expected to grow to 70% by 2025.23 Further, as long as ethanol remains dependent
on U.S. agricultural supplies, any threats to these supplies (such as drought), or
increases in crop prices, would negatively affect the supply and/or cost of biofuels.
In fact, that happened in 1995 when high corn prices — due to strong export demand
— contributed to an 18% decline in ethanol production between 1995 and 1996.
Moreover, expanding corn-based ethanol production to levels needed to
significantly promote U.S. energy security is likely to be infeasible. If the entire 2007
U.S. corn crop of 13.1 billion bushels were used as ethanol feedstock, the resultant
35 billion gallons of ethanol (23.6 billion gasoline-equivalent gallons (GEG)) would
represent about 16.7% of estimated national gasoline use of approximately 14124
billion gallons. In 2007, an estimated 86 million acres of corn were harvested
(largest since 1944). Nearly 137 million acres would be needed to produce enough
corn (20.5 billion bushels) and resulting ethanol (56.4 billion gallons or 37.8 billion
GEG) to substitute for roughly 20% of petroleum imports.25 Thus, barring a drastic
realignment of U.S. field crop production patterns, corn-based ethanol’s potential as
a petroleum import substitute appears to be limited by crop area constraints, among26
21 A key question in evaluating the energy security benefits or costs of an expanded RFS is
“what is the definition of energy security.” For many policymakers, “energy security” and
“energy independence” (i.e., producing all energy within our borders) are synonymous. For
others, “energy security” means guaranteeing that we have reliable supplies of energy
regardless of their origin. For this section, the former definition is used.
22 By volume, ethanol accounted for approximately 3.6% of gasoline consumption in the
United States in 2006, but a gallon of ethanol yields only 67% of the energy of a gallon of
23 DOE, EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2004 with Projections to 2025, Washington.
24 Based on USDA’s Jan. 12, 2007, World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates
(WASDE) Report, and using comparable conversion rates.
25 This represents roughly half of gasoline’s share of imported petroleum. However,
petroleum imports are primarily unrefined crude oil, which is then refined into a variety of
products. CRS calculations assume corn yields of 150 bushels per acre and an ethanol yield
of 2.75 gal/bu.
26 Two recent articles by economists at Iowa State University examine the potential for
The specific definition of “advanced biofuel” affects the overall energy security
picture for biofuels. For example, ethanol from sugarcane is allowed under an
expanded RFS as in EISA; this provides an incentive to increase imports of
sugarcane ethanol, especially from Brazil. The expanded RFS also provides an
incentive for imports of biodiesel and other renewable diesel substitutes from tropical
Energy Prices. The effects of the expanded RFS on energy prices are
uncertain. If wholesale biofuels prices remain higher than gasoline prices (when all
economic incentives are taken into account), then mandating higher and higher levels
of biofuels would likely lead to higher gasoline pump prices. However, if petroleum
prices — and thus gasoline prices — remain high, the use of some biofuels might
help to mitigate high gasoline prices.
Current costs are so high for some biofuels, especially cellulosic biofuels and
biodiesel from algae, that significant technological advances — or even greater
increases in petroleum prices — are necessary to lower their production costs to
make them competitive with gasoline. Without cost reductions, mandating large
amounts of these fuels would likely raise fuel prices. If a price were placed on
greenhouse gas emissions — perhaps through the enactment of a cap and trade bill
— then the economics could shift in favor of these fuels despite their high production
costs, as they have lower fuel-cycle and life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions (see
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Biofuels proponents argue that a key benefit of biofuel use is a decrease in
greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, some question the overall GHG benefit
of biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol. There is a wide range of fuel-cycle
estimates for greenhouse gas reductions from corn-based ethanol. However, most
studies have found that corn-based ethanol reduces fuel-cycle GHG emissions by27
10%-20% per mile relative to gasoline. These estimates vary depending on several
factors including the cultivation practice (e.g., minimum-tillage versus normal
tillage) used to grow the corn and the fuel used to process the corn into ethanol (e.g.,
natural gas versus coal). These same studies find that biofuels produced from sugar
cane or cellulosic biomass could reduce fuel-cycle GHG emissions by as much as
However, fuel-cycle analyses generally do not take changes in land use into
account. For example, if a previously uncultivated piece of land is tilled to plant
biofuel crops, some of the carbon stored in the field could be released. In that case,
the overall GHG benefit of biofuels could be compromised. One study estimates that
obtaining a 10 million acre expansion in corn planting: Bruce Babcock and D. A. Hennessy,
“Getting More Corn Acres From the Corn Belt”; and Chad E. Hart, “Feeding the Ethanol
Boom: Where Will the Corn Come From?” Iowa Ag Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, Fall 2006.
27 EPA, Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Expanded Renewable and Alternative Fuels Use. April
taking land use into account (a life-cycle analysis, as opposed to a fuel-cycle
analysis), the GHG reduction from corn ethanol is less than 3% per mile relative to
gasoline,28 while cellulosic biofuels have a life-cycle reduction of 50%.29 Other
recent studies indicate even smaller GHG reductions.
Biofuels produced at facilities commencing operations after the date of
enactment must have a 20% life-cycle emissions reduction to qualify under the EISA
expanded RFS. However, it is expected that this provision may not be relevant to a
large share of conventional ethanol since much of the capacity to meet the 15 billion
gallon cap is currently existing or will come from expansions of existing plants.
A continued expansion of corn-based ethanol production could have significant
consequences for traditional U.S. agricultural crop production and rural economies.
Supporters of an expanded RFS claim that increased biofuels production and use
would have enormous agricultural and rural economic benefits by increasing farm
and rural incomes and generating substantial rural employment opportunities.30
However, large-scale shifts in agricultural production activities will likely also have
important regional economic consequences that have yet to be fully explored or
understood. As corn prices rise, so too does the incentive to expand corn production
either by expanding onto more marginal soil environments or by altering the
traditional corn-soybean rotation that dominates Corn Belt agriculture. This shift
could displace other field crops, primarily soybeans, and other agricultural activities.
Further, corn production is among the most energy-intensive of the major field crops.
An expansion of corn area would likely have important and unwanted environmental
consequences due to the increases in fertilizer and chemical use and soil erosion.
The National Corn Growers Association estimates that U.S. corn-based ethanol
production could expand to between 12.8 and 17.8 billion gallons by 2015 without
significantly affecting agricultural markets.31 However, as noted below, other
evidence suggests effects are already being felt in the current expansion in corn
Food versus Fuel. Many critics of federal biofuels subsidies and the RFS
argue that a sustained rise in grain prices driven by ethanol feedstock demand likely
will lead to higher U.S. and world food prices with potentially harmful effects on
consumer budgets and nutrition.32 As evidence they cite USDA’s estimate that the
28 Mark A. Delucchi, Draft Report: Life cycle Analyses of Biofuels. 2006.
29 While a 50% life-cycle reduction is still significant, it is far less than the 90% reduction
suggested by fuel-cycle analyses.
30 For example, see John M. Urbanchuk (Director, LECG LLC), Contribution of the Ethanol
Industry to the Economy of the United States, white paper prepared for National Corn
Growers Assoc., February 21, 2006.
31 National Corn Growers Association, How Much Ethanol Can Come From Corn?,
November 9, 2006, Washington D.C.
32 For a discussion, see the National Corn Growers Association’s online “Food versus Fuel
U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all food is forecast to increase 3%-4% in 2008,
and increased 4.0% in 2007 and 2.4% in 2006. The average rate of increase for
1997-2006 was 2.5%.33 However, in analyzing this critique it is important to
distinguish between prices of farm-level crops and retail-level food products because
most “food” prices are largely determined by costs and profits after the commodities
leave the farm.34 Basic economics suggests that the price of a particular retail food
item varies with a change in the price of an underlying ingredient in direct relation
to the relative importance (in value terms) of that ingredient. For example, if the
value of wheat in a $1.00 loaf of bread is about 10¢, then a 20% rise in the price of
wheat translates into a 2¢ rise in a loaf of bread.
As a result of corn’s relatively small value-share in most retail food product
prices, it is unlikely that the ethanol-driven corn price surge is a major factor in
current food price inflation estimates.35 Furthermore, economists generally agree that
most retail food price increases are not due to ethanol-driven demand increases, but
rather are the result of two major factors — a sharp increase in energy prices which
ripples through all phases of marketing and processing channels, and the strong
increase in demand for agricultural products in the international marketplace from
China and India (a product of their large populations and rapid economic growth).36
Feed Markets. Most corn grown in the United States is used for animal feed.
From 1995 through 2005, domestic feed use accounted for 58% of U.S. corn use. As
corn-based ethanol production increases, so do total corn demand and corn prices.
As a result, prolonged higher corn prices likely will have significant consequences
for traditional feed markets and the livestock industries — hog, cattle, dairy, and
poultry — that depend on those feed markets. Corn traditionally has represented
about 57% of feed concentrates and processed feedstuffs fed to animals in the United
States.37 Persistently high feed costs will tighten profit margins and likely squeeze
out marginal livestock producers. Because economies of scale tend to favor larger
producers, persistently tighter profit margins suggest a potential for increased
concentration in the livestock sector. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
Debate,” at [http://www.ncga.com/news/OurView/pdf/2006/FoodANDFuel.pdf].
33 ERS, USDA, Briefing Room “Food CPI, Prices, and Expenditures,” at [http://www.
ers.usda.gov/Briefing/ CPIFoodAndExpe nditures/consumerpriceindex.htm] .
34 Helen H. Jensen and Bruce A. Babcock, “Do Biofuels Mean Inexpensive Food is a Thing
of the Past?” Iowa Ag Review, Spring 2007, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 1-3.
35 For examples, see Food & Water Watch, “Retail Realities: Corn Prices Do Not Drive
Grocery Inflation,” Sept. 2007; and John M. Urbanchuk (Director, LECG LLC), “The
Relative Impact of Corn and Energy Prices in the Grocery Aisle,” white paper prepared for
National Corn Growers Assoc., June, 14, 2007.
36 For examples, see Jacque Diouf, Director General of the U.N. Food and Agriculture
Organization, “Why Are Food Prices Rising?” in Financial Times Online, Nov. 26, 2007;
[http:/ / medi a .f t . com/ cms / s / 2/ f 5bd920c-975b-11dc-9e08-0000779f d2ac.ht ml ?f r o m=textlink].
See also, Keith Collins, Chief Economist, USDA, Testimony before the House Committee
on Agriculture, October 18, 2007.
37 USDA, ERS, Feed Situation and Outlook Yearbook, FDS-2003, Apr. 2003, Washington.
(NCBA) has been one of the foremost critics of an expanded RFS. Instead, the
NCBA argues for a phase out of current ethanol subsidies and a more market-based
approach to renewable fuels policy.38
Table 3. U.S. Farm Prices for Major Agricultural Commodities
Farm Market PricesUSDA Program Pricesg
Av erage Actua l Projections Ta rgetd e
W heata $/bu 3.24 4.26 6.65 4.29 2.75 3.92
Co r na $/bu 2.15 3.04 4.00 3.25 1.95 2.63
So r ghuma $/bu 2.04 3.29 3.90 3.02f 1.95 2.57
Soybean oilb¢/lb21.431.0 49.536.8 — —
Soybean mealb$/st187.7205.4320.0202.0 — —
Cotton, Upland¢/lb50.3 46.553.9e59.952.072.4
Choice Steersc$/cwt73.585.491.686.4 — —
Barrows/Giltsc$/cwt42.247.347.054.3 — —
Broilersc¢/lb37.964.476.477.2 — —
Eggsc¢/doz63.771.8114.485.4f — —
Milkc$/cwt13.9112.9017.2015.7 — —
a. Season average farm price from USDA, National Agricultural Statistical Service, Agricultural
Prices. — = no loan rate.
b. USDA, Agr. Marketing Service (AMS), Decatur, IL, cash price, simple average crude for soybean
oil, and simple average 48% protein for soybean meal.
c. Calendar year data for the first year, e.g., 2000/2001 = 2000; USDA, AMS: choice steers —
Nebraska, direct 1100-1300 lbs.; barrows/gilts — national base, live equivalent 51%-52% lean;
broilers — wholesale, 12-city average; eggs — Grade A, New York, volume buyers; and milk
— simple average of prices received by farmers for all milk.
d. Unless otherwise indicated: mid-point of price projection range from USDA, World Agricultural
Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) Feb. 8, 2008.
e. Unless otherwise indicated: FAPRI, Baseline Update for U.S. Agricultural Markets, August 2007.
f. FAPRI, U.S. Baseline Briefing Book, February 2007, FAPRI-UMC Report #02-07.
g. For more information on U.S. commodity programs see CRS Report RL33271, Farm Commodity
Programs: Direct Payments, Counter-Cyclical Payments, and Marketing Loans.
The price of corn also is linked to the price of other grains, including those
destined for food markets, through competition in the feed marketplace and in the
producer’s planting choices for limited acreage. The price runup in the U.S. corn
market has already spilled over into price increases in the markets for soybeans and
soybean oil. Supply distortions also are likely to develop in protein-meal markets
38 “NCBA on Renewable Fuel Policy,” NCBA Issue Backgrounder-2007; available at
related to expanded production of the ethanol processing by-product distiller’s dried
grains with solubles (DDGS), which averages about 30% protein content and can
substitute in certain feed and meal markets.39
While DDGS use would substitute for some of the lost feed value of corn used
in ethanol processing, about 66% of the original weight of corn is consumed in
producing ethanol and is no longer available for feed. Furthermore, not all livestock
species are well adapted to dramatically increased consumption of DDGS in their
rations — dairy cattle appear to be best suited to expanding DDGS’s share in feed
rations; poultry and pork are much less able to adapt. Also, DDGS must be dried
before it can be transported long distances, adding to feed costs. There may be some
potential for large-scale livestock producers to relocate near new feed sources, but
such relocation likely would have important regional economic effects.
Domestic Food Prices. Although corn primarily is used as a livestock feed
or for ethanol production, it is also used widely as an ingredient (albeit minor) in
many processed foods, e.g., soft drinks, snack foods, and baked goods. Since corn
prices are a relatively small share of the price of most retail food products, their price
impact is concomitantly small. Higher corn prices have their largest impact on meat
prices. The feed-price effect will first translate into higher prices for poultry and
hogs, which are less able to use alternate feedstuffs. Dairy and beef cattle are more
versatile in their ability to shift to alternate feed sources, but eventually a sustained
rise in corn prices will push their feed costs upward as well. A recent economic
study estimated that a 30% increase in the price of corn, and associated increases in
the prices of wheat and soybeans, would increase egg prices by 8.1%, poultry prices
by 5.1%, pork prices by 4.5%, beef prices by 4.1%, and milk prices by 2.7%.40 The
effect on all food consumed was a 1.1% increase (0.9% on at-home food and 1.3%
on away-from-home food consumption). Thus, the price impact of higher corn prices
is small but important for most livestock products, and probably much smaller for
most other retail food products.
The overall impact to consumers from higher food prices depends on the
proportion of income that is spent on food. Since food costs represent a relatively
small share of consumer spending for most U.S. households (about 10%), food price
increases (from whatever source) are absorbed relatively easily in the short run.
However, low-income consumers spend a much greater proportion of their income
on food than do high-income consumers. Their larger share combined with less
flexibility to adjust expenditures in other budget areas means that any increase in
food prices potentially could cause hardship.41 In addition, higher commodity prices
39 For a discussion of potential feed market effects due to growing ethanol production, see
Bob Kohlmeyer, “The Other Side of Ethanol’s Bonanza,” Ag Perspectives (World
Perspectives, Inc.), Dec. 14, 2004; and R. Wisner and P. Baumel, “Ethanol, Exports, and
Livestock: Will There be Enough Corn to Supply Future Needs?,” Feedstuffs, no. 30, vol.
40 Simla Tokgoz and others, “Emerging Biofuels: Outlook of Effects on U.S. Grain, Oilseed,
and Livestock Markets,” Staff Report 07-SR 101, Center for Agricultural Research and
Development (CARD), Iowa State University, May 2007.
41 Helen H. Jensen and Bruce A. Babcock, “Do Biofuels Mean Inexpensive Food is a Thing
of the Past?” Iowa Ag Review, Spring 2007, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 1-3.
combined with shrinking inventories mean that local school districts and the U.S.
government will be forced to pay higher market prices for food for school lunch
programs. And the automatic food price escalators built into the food stamp program
mean rising expenditures as well.42
International Food Prices. Due to trade linkages, the increase in U.S. corn
prices has become a concern for international markets, as well. High commodity
prices ripple through international markets where impacts vary widely based on grain
import dependence and the ability to respond to higher commodity prices. Import-
dependent developing country markets are put at greater food security risk due to the
higher cost of imported commodities. In particular, lower-income households in
many foreign markets where food imports are an important share of national
consumption and where food expenses represent a larger portion of the household
budget may be affected by higher food prices.43 In China, where corn is an important
food source, the government recently has put a halt to its planned ethanol plant
expansion due to the threat it poses to the country’s food security. Similarly,
humanitarian groups have expressed concern for the potential difficulties that higher
grain prices imply for developing countries that are net food importers.44
Exports. The United States is the world’s leading exporter of corn. In the past
decade (1997 to 2006), the United States has exported about 20% of its corn
production, accounting for nearly 66% of world corn trade.45 Increased use of corn
for ethanol production could diminish U.S. capacity for exports. In 2006, the volume
of corn used for ethanol equaled exports, with a 20% share of total use. By the
2009/10 marketing year (September-August), ethanol’s share of U.S. corn production
is expected to reach nearly 36%, while the export share falls to 13%.46 FAPRI
projections clearly suggest that higher corn prices will result in lost export sales. It
is unclear what type of market adjustments will occur in global feed markets, since
several different grains and feedstuffs are relatively close substitutes. Price-sensitive
corn importers may quickly switch to alternative, cheaper sources of feed, depending
on the availability of supplies and the adaptability of animal rations. In contrast, less
price-sensitive corn importers, such as Japan and Taiwan, may choose to pay a higher
price in an attempt to bid the corn away from ethanol plants. There could be
significant economic effects to U.S. grain companies and to the U.S. agricultural
sector if ethanol-induced higher corn prices led to a sustained reshaping of
international grain trade.
Economic Impact. Several studies claim that increased biofuels production
and use would produce enormous agricultural and rural economic benefits by raising
43 Shahla Shapouri and Stacey Rosen, “Energy Price Implications for Food Security in
Developing Countries,” Food Security Assessment, 2006, GFA-18, Economic Research
44 International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook: Globalization and Inequality.
October 2007. Washington.
45 USDA, Production, Supply and Distribution Online (PSD database) available at
[ ht t p: / / www.f a s.usda.gov/ psdonl i ne/ psdHome.aspx] .
46 FAPRI, Baseline Update for U.S. Agricultural Markets, August 2007.
farm and rural incomes and generating substantial rural employment opportunities.47
One estimate suggested that the economic benefit from the ethanol industry to the
U.S. economy for 2005 was $17.7 billion of GDP; the creation of over 150,000 jobs;
$5.7 billion in spinoff economic activity, and more than $3.5 billion in government
tax revenues.48 However, a recent critical review of the standard input-output
methodology used to generate such economic impact estimates suggests that the
income and job growth attributable to biofuels production has been grossly overstated
(perhaps by as much as a factor of 4 or 5).49 Yet, while the magnitude may be called
into question, there appears to be no doubt about the potential positive value of
biofuels production to rural economies. First, in addition to temporary construction
work to build a new plant, several dozen permanent jobs also accompany a biofuel
plant (the eventual job number depends on the size of the plant’s operating capacity).
Second, the new demand boosts the local prices received by farmers for corn and
sorghum. Third, important secondary economic activity is associated with the
operation of an ethanol plant. Fourth, given the high level of federal and state
subsidies for the biofuels industry, any locality that is home to a biofuels plant can
expect substantial net transfers of government funds into the area’s economy.
The policy question of interest is not whether there are positive gains from
growth in the ethanol industry, but whether the growth and its economic implications
are sufficient to merit large government subsidies. A growing number of critics
argue that the answer is no.50 Other suggest that, at the very least, the issue deserves
more study before expanding current government support levels.51
47 For example, see John M. Urbanchuk (Director, LECG LLC), Contribution of the Ethanol
Industry to the Economy of the United States, white paper prepared for National Corn
Growers Assoc., February 21, 2006; see also Urbanchuk, Contribution of the Biofuels
Industry To the Economy of Iowa, white paper prepared for the Iowa Renewable Fuels
Association, Feburary 2007.
48 Urbanchuk (2006).
49 David Swenson, “Input-Outrageous: The Economic Impacts of Modern Biofuels
Production,” Dept. of Econ, Iowa State University (ISU), June 2006. Similar results are
found in: David Swenson, “Understanding Biofuels Economic Impact Claims,” Dept. of
Econ, ISU, April 2007; Lisa Eathington and Dave Swenson, “Dude, Where’s My Corn?
Constraints on the Location of Ethanol Production in the Corn Belt,” Dept. of Econ, ISU,th
paper presented at 46 Annual Meeting of the Southern Regional Science Assoc.,
Charleston, SC, March 29-31, 2007; Swenson and Eathington, “Determining the Regional
Economic Values of Ethanol Production in Iowa Considering Different Levels of Local
Investment,” Dept. of Econ, ISU, July 2006.
50 Examples include Robert Hahn and Caroline Cecot, “The Benefits and Costs of Ethanol,”
Working Paper 07-17, AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, November 2007;
Richard Doornbosch and Ronald Steenblik, “Biofuels: is the Cure Worse Than the
Disease?”, paper presented at an OECD Round Table on Sustainable Development, Paris,
September 11-12, 2007; and Doug Koplow, Biofuels at What Cost? Government Support
for Ethanol and Biodiesel in the United States: 2007 Update, report prepared for the Global
Studies Initiative of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Geneva,
Switzerland, October 2007.
51 For example, see Bruce A. Babcock, “High Crop Prices, Ethanol Mandates, and the Public
Good: Do They Coexist?” Iowa Ag Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 2007.
Infrastructure and Distribution Issues
In addition to the above concerns about raw material supply for biofuel
production (both feedstock and energy), there are issues involving biofuel
distribution and infrastructure. Expanding ethanol production likely will strain the
existing supply infrastructure. Further, expansion of ethanol use beyond certain
levels will require investment in entirely new infrastructure that would be necessary
to handle a higher and higher percentage of ethanol in gasoline. If biomass-based
diesel substitutes are produced in much larger quantities, some of these infrastructure
issues may be mitigated.
Distribution Issues. Ethanol-blended gasoline tends to separate in pipelines.
Further, ethanol is corrosive and may damage existing pipelines. Therefore, unlike
petroleum products, ethanol and ethanol blended gasoline cannot be shipped by
pipeline in the United States. Another issue with pipeline transportation is that corn
ethanol must be moved from rural areas in the Midwest to more populated areas,
which are often located along the coasts. This shipment is in the opposite direction
of existing pipeline transportation, which moves gasoline from refiners along the
coast to other coastal cities and into the interior of the country. While some studies
have concluded that shipping ethanol or ethanol-blended gasoline via pipeline could
be feasible, no major U.S. pipeline has made the investments to allow such52
Thus, the current distribution system for ethanol is dependent on rail cars, tanker
trucks, and barges. These deliver ethanol to fuel terminals where it is blended with
gasoline before shipment via tanker truck to gasoline retailers. However, these
transport modes lead to higher prices than pipeline transport, and the supply of
current shipping options (especially rail cars) is limited. For example, according to
industry estimates, the number of ethanol carloads has tripled between 2001 and53
2006, and the number is expected to increase by another 30% in 2007. A
significant increase in corn-based ethanol production would further strain this tight
Because of these distribution issues, some pipeline operators are seeking ways
to make their systems compatible with ethanol or ethanol-blended gasoline. These
modifications could include coating the interior of pipelines with epoxy or some
other, corrosion-resistant material. Another potential strategy could be to replace all
susceptible pipeline components with newer, hardier components. However, even
if such modifications are technically possible, they likely will be expensive, and
could further increase ethanol transportation costs.
As non-corn biofuels play a larger role, as required in EISA, some of the supply
infrastructure concerns may be alleviated. Cellulosic biofuels potentially can be
52 Some small, proprietary ethanol pipelines do exist. American Petroleum Institute,
Shipping Ethanol Through Pipelines. Available at [http://www.api.org/aboutoilgas/sectors
53 Ilan Brat and Daniel Machalaba, “Can Ethanol Get a Ticket to Ride?,” The Wall Street
Journal, Feb. 1, 2007, p. B1.
produced from a variety of feedstocks, and may not be as dependent on a single crop
from one region of the country. For example, municipal solid waste is ubiquitous
across the United States, and could serve as a ready feedstock for biofuel production
if the technology were developed to convert it to fuel economically. Further,
increased imports of biofuels from other countries could allow for greater use of
biofuels, especially along the coasts.
Higher-Level Ethanol Blends. One key benefit of gasoline-ethanol blends
up to 10% ethanol is that they are compatible with existing vehicles and
infrastructure (e.g., fuel tanks, retail pumps, etc.). All automakers that produce cars
and light trucks for the U.S. market warranty their vehicles to run on gasoline with
up to 10% ethanol (E10). This 10% currently is an upper bound to the amount of
ethanol that can be introduced into the gasoline pool. If most or all gasoline in the
country contained 10% ethanol, this would allow only for roughly 15 billion gallons,
far less than the amount of biofuel mandated in EISA.
As a major producer of ethanol for its domestic market, Brazil has a mandate
that all of its gasoline contain 20-25% ethanol. For the United States to move to E20
(20% ethanol, 80% gasoline), it may be that few (if any) modifications would need
to be made to existing vehicles and infrastructure. Vehicle testing, however, would
be necessary to determine whether new vehicle parts would be required, or if existing
vehicles are compatible with E20. Similar testing would be necessary for terminal
tanks, tanker trucks, retail tanks, pumps, etc. In addition, EPA would need to certify
that the fuel will not lead to increased air quality problems.
There is also interest in expanding the use of E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline).
Current E85 consumption represents only about 1% of ethanol consumption in the
United States. A key reason for the relatively low consumption of E85 is that
relatively few vehicles operate on E85. The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition
estimates that there are approximately six million E85-capable vehicles on U.S.54
roads, as compared to approximately 230 million gasoline- and diesel-fueled
vehicles.55 Most E85-capable vehicles are “flexible fuel vehicles” or FFVs. An FFV
can operate on any mixture of gasoline and between 0% and 85% ethanol. However,
owners of a large majority of the FFVs on U.S. roads choose to fuel them exclusively56
with gasoline, largely due to higher per-mile fuel cost and lower availability of E85.
E85 capacity is expanding rapidly, with the number of E85 stations nearly
tripling between January 2006 and January 2008. But those stations still represent
less than 1% of U.S. gasoline retailers. Further expansion will require significant
investments, especially at the retail level. If a new E85 pump and underground tank
54 National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, Frequently Asked Questions, accessed February 3,
55 Federal Highway Administration, Highway Statistics 2003, November 2004, Washington.
56 Ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline per gallon. Therefore, FFVs tend to
have lower fuel economy when operating on E85. For the use of E85 to be economical, the
pump price for E85 must be low enough to make up for the decreased fuel economy relative
to gasoline. Generally, to have equivalent per-mile costs, E85 must cost 20% to 30% less
per gallon at the pump than gasoline.
are necessary, they can cost as much as $100,000 to $200,000 to install.57 However,
if existing equipment can be used with little modification, the cost could be less than
Vehicle Infrastructure Issues. As was stated above, if a large portion of
any increased RFS is met using ethanol, then the United States likely does not have
the vehicles to consume the fuel. The 10% limit on ethanol in gasoline for
conventional vehicles poses a significant barrier to expanding ethanol consumption58
beyond 15 billion gallons per year. To allow more ethanol use, vehicles will need
to be certified and warrantied for higher-level ethanol blends, or the number of
ethanol FFVs will need to increase.
There is continuing interest in expanding the U.S. biofuel industry as a strategy
for promoting energy security and environmental goals. However, there are limits
to the amount of biofuels that can be produced from current feedstocks and questions
about the net energy and environmental benefits they would provide. Further, rapid
expansion of biofuel production may have many unintended and undesirable
consequences for agricultural commodity costs, fossil energy use, and environmental
degradation. As policies are implemented to promote ever-increasing use of biofuels,
the goal of replacing petroleum use with agricultural products competes with these
other potential consequences. Further, alternative strategies for energy conservation
and alternative energy production are widely seen as warranting consideration.
57 David Sedgwick, Automotive News, January 29, 2007. p. 112.
58 Note that 15 billion gallons is the corn starch ethanol limit for the expanded RFS in the