Environmental Outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard: Lark Study

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) specifies the use of biofuels in the United States and thereby guides nearly half of all global biofuel production, yet outcomes of this keystone climate and environmental regulation remain unclear. Here we combine econometric analyses, land use observations, and biophysical models to estimate the realized effects of the RFS in aggregate and down to the scale of individual agricultural fields across the United States. We find that the RFS increased corn prices by 30% and the prices of other crops by 20%, which, in turn, expanded US corn cultivation by 2.8 Mha (8.7%) and total cropland by 2.1 Mha (2.4%) in the years following policy enactment (2008 to 2016). These changes increased annual nationwide fertilizer use by 3 to 8%, increased water quality degradants by 3 to 5%, and caused enough domestic land use change emissions such that the carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced under the RFS is no less than gasoline and likely at least 24% higher. These tradeoffs must be weighed alongside the benefits of biofuels as decision-makers consider the future of renewable energy policies and the potential for fuels like corn ethanol to meet climate mitigation goals.

Bioenergy is an essential component of most proposed pathways to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 °C by middle to late century. Liquid biofuels may contribute to bioenergy’s share of climate mitigation by displacing petroleum-based fuels with those generated from modern-day plants. The GHG benefits of such substitution, however, are dependent on several factors including whether biofuel production invokes additional plant growth, the extent to which combusted plants (typically crops) are replaced in the food system, and the degree to which biofuel production directly and indirectly alters patterns of land use and management. Because land use changes (LUCs) and other consequences induced by biofuels have the potential to cause significant novel GHG emissions and modify other ecosystem services and disservices, accurately estimating and accounting these outcomes is critical for the formation of effective climate and environmental policy.

The United States is the world leader in biofuel production by volume and generated 47% of global output over the last decade under the purview of its Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). First enacted in 2005 and greatly expanded in 2007, the RFS requires that biofuels be blended into the transportation fuel supply at annually increasing increments. Volume targets exist for several advanced biofuel types including biomass-based diesel and those made from cellulosic feedstocks. However, the vast majority (∼87%) of the mandate to date has been fulfilled by conventional renewable fuels, specifically corn grain ethanol, such that the potential benefits of its more advanced fuel requirements have not yet materialized.

To comply with the policy’s GHG reduction goals, the RFS requires conventional renewable fuels to generate life cycle GHG savings of at least 20% relative to gasoline. Upon enactment, the policy’s regulatory analysis projected that life cycle emissions of corn ethanol production would just clear the 20% threshold by 2022, even when emissions from LUC were included. At the time, most LUC emissions were projected to occur internationally. Since the initial RFS policy-making, however, observations of widespread land conversion and resultant GHG emissions within the United States have also emerged.