Congressional Research Service


Date of this Version



Published by Congressional Research Service, 7-5700,, R41282


Since the late 1970s, U.S. policymakers at both the federal and state levels have enacted a variety of incentives, regulations, and programs to encourage the production and use of agriculture-based biofuels. Initially, federal biofuels policies were developed to help kick-start the biofuels industry during its early development, when neither production capacity nor a market for the finished product was widely available. Federal policy has played a key role in helping to close the price gap between biofuels and cheaper petroleum fuels. Now, as the industry has evolved, other policy goals (e.g., national energy security, climate change concerns, support for rural economies) are cited by proponents as justification for continuing policy support.

The U.S. biofuels sector has responded to these government incentives by expanding output every year since 1996, with important implications for the domestic and international food and fuel sectors. The production of ethanol (the primary biofuel produced in the United States) has risen from about 175 million gallons in 1980 to 10.7 billion gallons per year in 2009. U.S. biodiesel production is much smaller than its ethanol counterpart, but has also shown strong growth, rising from 0.5 million gallons in 1999 to an estimated 776 million gallons in 2008 before being impeded by the nationwide financial crisis.

Despite this rapid growth, total agriculture-based biofuels production accounted for only about 4.3% of total U.S. transportation fuel consumption in 2009. Federal biofuels policies have had costs, including unintended market and environmental consequences and large federal outlays (estimated at $6 to $8 billion in 2009). Despite the direct and indirect costs of federal biofuels policy and the small role of biofuels as an energy source, the U.S. biofuels sector continues to push for greater federal involvement. But critics of federal policy intervention in the biofuels sector have also emerged.