Their View: Ethanol’s benefits deserve scrutiny

Eighty-five days.

That’s how much later Pennsylvania’s primaries are than Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses that begin on Feb. 1. And that’s why most presidential candidates are going out of their way to keep Iowa’s special interests happy, even if it hurts hard-working Pennsylvanians in the process.

One issue in particular stands out: the renewable fuel standard. The RFS is a 2005 federal mandate that requires fuel refiners to blend biofuels — primarily corn-based ethanol — into gasoline.

It’s a big deal in Iowa, which produces much of the ethanol the rest of us are forced to use, despite higher costs and dubious benefits.

The RFS amounts to a regressive gas tax. It harms low- and middle-class families in Pennsylvania and across the country by driving up the cost of gasoline and pushing down total miles per gallon. And despite its intentions, it actually harms the environment.

Consider the RFS’ effect on gas prices. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated the RFS could raise prices at the pump by 13 to 27 cents per gallon by 2017, and diesel by 30 to 51 cents. With Pennsylvania gas prices averaging $2.85 per gallon today, the RFS could raise them by close to 10 percent or more.

This comes at a bad time for Pennsylvanians. Affordable gasoline has offered a lifeline to households struggling to make ends meet, providing the equivalent of a $700 tax cut per family since last June. The RFS will reverse this much-needed reprieve.

Making matters worse is that ethanol has a lower fuel economy than gasoline. So as the RFS requires increasingly more ethanol to be blended into your gas, it decreases the distance each gallon will take you. The result is more trips to the gas station.

And while the RFS was passed on promises that it would be environmentally friendly, in practice it has been anything but. When factoring in the additional farming and refining ethanol requires, the World Resources Institute found that it does more harm than good.

Which begs the question: If the RFS is all pain and no gain, why would presidential candidates support it? Perhaps because Iowa’s caucuses, the first in the nation, come well before Pennsylvania’s primaries — which supposedly makes their interests more important than ours.

Of course, Congress could easily take this issue off the table by repealing the renewable fuel standard on its own. Half measures, such as legislation to repeal only the corn mandate, would make America’s energy policy resemble California’s, where gas prices are the highest in the nation.

The only acceptable solution is to repeal the mandate entirely. U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has already introduced legislation that would do just that. Pennsylvanians should encourage their members of Congress to join him in passing it without delay.

Meanwhile, instead of focusing on how to get votes in just one state, presidential candidates should focus on what’s good for the whole country. With the primaries and caucuses still nine months away, there’s plenty of time to make sure the RFS gets the national attention it deserves. Opposing it should be an easy decision for candidates who side with families over special interests.