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Ethanol — and renewable fuel standard — threaten Pennsylvania consumers and industry

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As our state continues to struggle with a 7.5 percent unemployment rate and families toil through a slow economic recovery, Pennsylvanians — unbeknownst to many — are also grappling with the harmful effects of ethanol mandates.

A broken federal policy known as the renewable fuel standard (RFS) annually increases the amount of ethanol to be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply despite harmful, costly effects on consumers and the industries they work in.

Conceived in 2005 and aggressively revised in 2007, the RFS was intended to lessen our gasoline demand, decrease our reliance on foreign oil and reduce our environmental impact. But factors such as improving fuel-efficiency technologies, slow economic recovery and a domestic energy revolution have since remedied much of these concerns.

Even so, the Environmental Protection Agency has continued to raise biofuel blending targets year after year no matter the cries from consumer advocates; auto, marine and small engine manufacturers; dairy, livestock and poultry farmers; and anti-hunger and environmental groups, who have all witnessed the mandate's unintended consequences.

The EPA has called for 16.5 billion gallons of biofuel to be blended into U.S. gasoline this year, with more than 80 percent of that target to be met with corn-based ethanol. The problem? Forty percent of our nation's corn crop is now used to produce fuel, not food. This conversion of food to fuel drastically restricts corn supplies, gravely threatens Pennsylvania's food producers and leads to skyrocketing costs for many of the staple items on our grocery lists.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania dairy farmers expressed serious concern about rising corn prices brought on by ethanol production. And they should. Farms and food plants across the country are closing their doors as feed prices rise ever higher due to swelling ethanol blending requirements.

The cost of corn feed for dairy cows, which was $2.50 a bushel just five years ago, now hovers around $6.50 a bushel — a hefty price for the grain that represents 94 percent of animal feed.

In 2012, 105 California dairies closed their doors due to foreclosures, bankruptcies and sales associated with higher feed prices. Just last month, a North Carolina turkey plant was forced shut, eliminating more than 950 jobs on account of our nation's ethanol mandate. Let's hope this eastward creep avoids Pennsylvania.

Higher corn and feed prices have also triggered higher price points for key food items across the country. For example, beef, pork, egg and fish prices have increased a collective 79 percent since 2005 — the year the RFS was enacted. In addition, the average U.S. family of four has struggled with a $2,000 increase in food costs last year due to higher corn prices brought on largely by the RFS.

All of this hardship is being endured to advance fuels most Americans can't even use. As it stands, our nation's fuel market cannot tolerate higher levels of ethanol-blended gasoline. Most vehicles, boats, motorcycles, small engines and retail infrastructure are incapable of handling fuel containing more than 10 percent ethanol. However, the EPA recently permitted the sale of 15 percent ethanol (E15) in gasoline despite the serious risks to engines, including vehicles manufactured before 2001. Condensation created by E15 can damage engines and result in corrosion, rust, clogging and deterioration of fuel system components.

Newer vehicles manufactured since 2001 aren't immune either. Both automakers and the AAA have warned against E15 use due to safety concerns and potential engine damage. In fact, many automakers have said they will not honor any fuel-related warranty claims on cars fueled with E15 gasoline due to the fuel's detrimental effects.

To make matters worse, higher ethanol fuel blends like E15 have less energy content than regular gasoline, deliver lower fuel economy and cost consumers more money at the pump. Ethanol contains 33 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline and forces Americans to return to the pump more frequently as ethanol levels in our gasoline supply increase.

Thankfully, momentum to reform the RFS is steadily increasing in Washington. A number of diverse organizations, including engine and auto manufacturers; car enthusiasts; dairy, livestock and poultry farmers; and environmental groups are concerned with the high costs and dangerous impacts of the RFS. They are calling on lawmakers to rethink this policy.

It is critical that we speak up and demand a stop to the RFS to prevent any further harm to consumers and the economy.

George Hartwick is the secretary of the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners.

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