Comment: The RFS and the EPA — making a mess of success

Source: By former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), The Hill • Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2015

In an age of hyper-partisanship, it’s hard to imagine a comprehensive energy bill becoming law with support from nearly two-thirds of the U.S. Congress. Yet that’s exactly what happened 10 years ago when we enacted the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which President George W. Bush quickly signed it into law.

The legislation was big and bold. It created incentives for energy efficiency and renewable energy as well as streamlining regulations to spur domestic production and energy markets.

But the provision of which I am most proud is the creation of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which called for phasing clean alternative, renewable fuels into the nation’s energy mix. The RFS has been an unbelievably successful transportation energy policy. Ten years after its enactment, the U.S. now gets more than 10 percent of its fuel supply from renewable fuels. That’s more than 15 billion of gallons of fuel made from clean, renewable resources that displaces imported gasoline and diesel and strengthens our energy security and our national security by reducing foreign oil imports. But this is just a start. We can do even more!

After the success during the first decade of a renewable fuels policy, you would think we would be celebrating an impressive accomplishment and preparing to do more. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Today, there are producers of renewable fuels around the country that are shutting down their plants and laying off workers because the current administration has impossibly delayed decision making about volume requirements for the RFS.

It started back in 2013, when there was a leak to the press that the EPA was preparing to reduce RFS requirements. The leak proved true, and the EPA proposed scaling back the program. It was devastating to the industry. It immediately began to dry up investment in renewable fuels and seemed to send a message that this Administration was backing away from its previous strong support of the RFS.

Since then, there has been over a year of silence from the EPA and the White House.

As one of the authors of the RFS legislation, it is very disappointing to see this Administration now act so uncertain about the future of the RFS. The president, while in Congress and as a presidential candidate, was a strong supporter of the RFS and renewable fuels. While in the White House he has continued that support until now.

But we are now in the second consecutive year without RFS volume requirements. It is no way to run a business, or an energy policy, and the dysfunction is having real-world consequences.

The biodiesel industry, for example, is the first and only EPA-designated Advanced Biofuel under the RFS to reach commercial-scale production nationwide.  It’s made from all sorts of resources, including recycled cooking oil, plant oils and animal fats. It has roughly the same energy content as petroleum diesel, and using it doesn’t require modifications in vehicles.  Most important, it greatly reduces carbon emissions.

Until last year, the biodiesel industry had been growing steadily over the past decade, with production jumping from just over 100 million gallons in 2005, when the RFS was passed, to nearly 1.8 billion gallons in 2013 – or almost 5 percent of the U.S. diesel market. The industry supports some 60,000 jobs and produces a fuel that according to the EPA’s own analysis reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 86 percent compared with petroleum fuel.

Last year – for the first time since the RFS diesel program was implemented – the U.S. biodiesel market shrunk, killing the momentum the industry had built in recent years and forcing many biodiesel producers to close their doors or lay off employees. And many of those building opportunities in cellulosic advanced biofuels have also been stopped in their tracks.

The trouble isn’t about technology or production problems. This setback is caused by a paralysis of analysis in an Administration that is working for a lower carbon future, but is now watching the shutdown of plants that produce low-carbon fuels.

This is an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound.  The RFS policy was working. It is something to celebrate, not punish with leaks and dithering indecision. The EPA now says it plans to get the RFS back on track in the spring.  It’s long past the time for them to get this right.

Dorgan served in the Senate form 1992 to 2011 and in the House from 1981 to 1992. He is currently senior policy adviser at Arent Fox, whose clients include the National Biodiesel Board.