Ethanol Mandate Is Immortal Unless Congress Repeals It

In last week’s Texas presidential primary debate, one of the candidates opined that he did not need to call for repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), commonly known as the ethanol mandate, because the program “will phase out . . is phasing out now. By 2022 that program expires by virtue of the existing law. At that point it will go away.” None of the other candidates objected, suggesting they all may subscribe to that popular misconception.

The RFS, incorporated into the Clean Air Act in 2007 by the so-called Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), is the only regulatory program Congress ever enacted that expressly addresses greenhouse gases, albeit with the prudent caveat—inserted at the behest of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)—that the RFS not affect the regulatory status of greenhouse gases under other provisions of the Clean Air Act.

The RFS establishes a 17-year (2005-2022) production-quota schedule for renewable fuels. The program requires “obligated parties” (refiners, fuel blenders, importers) to purchase, blend, and sell increasing amounts of biofuel in the nation’s motor fuel supply each year—from 4 billion gallons in 2005 to 36 billion in 2022. Within each year’s overall target, the RFS also establishes sub-quota for four separate categories of biofuel: “conventional” ethanol derived from corn starch, “advanced,” “cellulosic,” and “biomass-based diesel.”

Although the statutory targets do not increase after 2022, neither do they expire. Rather, EISA Section 202(a)(1)(ii) authorizes EPA, in coordination with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, to establish “renewable volume obligations” for the motor fuel industry in “other calendar years”—in principle, until the end of time. Terminating the RFS after 2022 will require congressional action and executive leadership.

On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held an oversight hearing on the RFS. Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) opened with a plea for Congress to “revisit” the RFS. Among his chief reasons, “the tables in the Clean Air Act end” in 2022, after which time “U.S. fuel policy will be left in the hands of the EPA and I think we agree that’s not good.”