White House Watch

Biden Could Jack Up Food Prices, Wreak Environmental Havoc With ‘Sustainable’ Jet Fuel Subsidies

The Biden administration is set to announce regulatory guidance on subsidies for corn-based “sustainable aviation fuel” that could end up hiking food prices and incentivizing practices that damage the environment.

The guidance, expected to be released by the end of the year, would enable SAFs made from corn-based ethanol to more easily qualify for tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) if finalized, according to Reuters. Provided the change occurs, corn-based ethanol would then be poised play a huge role in the administration’s goal to have SAFs meet 100% of demand by 2050 to counter climate change.

However, the corn-based ethanol aviation fuel could have environmental and economic hidden costs that may cause more problems than it solves, experts say.

Reliance on corn-based ethanol aviation fuel “is not going to do much for global warming, but it will do quite a lot to benefit the renewable fuel industry and it will also indirectly benefit corn prices,” Prof. C. Ford Runge, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The costs of corn ethanol aviation fuel will be “borne by consumers, taxpayers and the environment” as it has in the past when government policies have mandated its use in gasoline for automobiles, Runge told the DCNF. “These political, largely bipartisan, well-funded efforts by the renewable fuel lobby have been pretty successful, and they stumble on despite the evidence that ethanol is not particularly efficient or environmental.”

If the Biden administration’s targets are realized, 35 billion gallons of SAFs will be used each year to power air travel and commerce, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). The goal is to decrease carbon emissions, but corn ethanol aviation fuel may not reduce emissions enough to offset the other environmental and economic costs that are associated with its production.

“SAFs are definitely not a climate solution at all, let alone an effective solution,” Mark Jacobson, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, told the DCNF. “Ethanol production from corn increases CO2-equivalent emissions by 0 to 24% relative to gasoline and increases the price of corn (making it more expensive to eat).”

Currently, about 40% of the country’s corn crop is used to create ethanol, which increased from 10% in the mid-2000s, according to The New York Times. About 100 million acres of American land, almost all of it in the Midwest, is used for growing corn. Meanwhile, major airline companies are starting to invest in long-term SAF plans and facilities.

More ethanol production means that there is less corn available for animal feed, which forces farmers to pay higher prices to feed their animals; that cost increase is invariably passed along to consumers, according to Farm Aid, a farmers’ advocacy organization. On top of that, production tends to fall when farmers have to deal with increased feed costs, which also puts upward pressure on the prices consumers pay for chicken, beef, pork, eggs and dairy.

Corn products are also used in a wide array of processed foods, so those goods would be subject to the same dynamics, according to Farm Aid. Additionally, increased corn yields could force farmers to grow less wheat and soy; this outcome would make cereals and grains more expensive as well.

“There’s no clear evidence that biofuels, especially corn ethanol, have an edge in reducing emissions,” Runge, who has written about the downsides of ethanol in the past, told the DCNF.

Beyond the economic impacts that boosted corn ethanol production could have, a substantial increase in corn production is likely to have considerable environmental impacts as well.

Future reliance on corn-based ethanol SAF to meet the country’s flying needs would add strain on the country’s groundwater aquifers, according to the NYT. Corn is a water-intensive crop to produce, and it can take hundreds of gallons of water to produce just one gallon of ethanol; America’s aquifers, especially in places like Kansas and Nebraska, are already facing high levels of strain, in large part due to agricultural irrigation, according to a separate NYT data analysis.

Eventually, the corn is processed into ethanol, and then transported for use to power aircrafts.

“The combustion of the fuel (in this case, in the aircraft) is always the harshest on the environment in terms of air pollutants and carbon dioxide (and contrails in the case of aircraft),” Jacobson told the DCNF. “The production of the fuel is significant, though. Emissions occur due to fertilizing, watering, tilling, extracting the corn, transporting the corn to a refinery, refining the corn to ethanol, transporting the ethanol (by train, truck or barge, since ethanol can’t be transported in pipelines).”

The White House, the Department of Agriculture and the DOE did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

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Nick Pope

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