Environmentalists attack biofuel as White House mulls waiver

Source: By Stuart Parker, Inside EPA • Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2022

EPA is under pressure from environmentalists to dial back use of E15 fuel and to limit RFS biofuel volumes, even as the administration considers steps to boost use of such fuels.

Environmentalists are criticizing the Biden administration for its efforts to boost biofuels, such as allowing summer sales of higher ethanol fuel and potential increases in mandated blending volumes, while the White House is reportedly considering a broader waiver of fuel vapor pressure limits to curb high prices due in part to the war in Ukraine.

In a May 23 letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, 11 groups including Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club warn the agency not to support steps that will increase biofuels use in the context of the renewable fuel standard (RFS).

“The egregious Russian invasion of Ukraine cannot become an excuse to trade one source of dirty energy for another,” the groups say. They ask Regan to rescind EPA’s waiver allowing sales of 15 percent ethanol fuel (E15) this summer, which would otherwise be prohibited under a federal court ruling.

EPA’s final biofuel blending volumes under the RFS for 2021 and 2022 are now under White House Office of Management (OMB) prepublication review, along with a possible retroactive cut for 2020 volumes, ahead of a June 3 legal deadline for their issuance.

Various groups are now lobbying OMB for and against the proposed volumes.

But environmentalists say the program has failed to encourage development of lower-carbon fuels and instead still relies on corn-based fuels.

“The RFS has failed to spur innovation in sustainable cellulosic fuels, and instead largely subsidizes corn ethanol production,” they write.

“The majority of this conventional, first-generation ethanol production flouts the purported purpose of the RFS — 87% of plants producing ethanol for the RFS in 2017 operated under the grandfathering-in provision that exempts them from the need to demonstrate any GHG reductions compared to gasoline,” they add.

The groups say, “recent studies found that corn ethanol produced under the RFS likely has a carbon intensity 24% higher than gasoline. Even the EPA’s own December 2021 [regulatory impact analysis] acknowledges that increasing the 2020-22” blending volumes “would increase short-term GHG emissions, worsening the climate crisis.”

These statistics are strongly disputed by the biofuels sector, which points to work by the Department of Energy and others finding substantial GHG savings from biofuel use.

The environmental groups also say EPA should not allow RFS compliance credits (renewable identification numbers) for electricity generated from biofuel, known as eRINs. “Regardless of how the program is designed or who is awarded the credit, new problems with RIN verification and potentially RIN fraud are probable. In climate and environmental terms, the likely electric feedstocks under the cellulosic mandate would become yet another conduit for federal subsidies to harmful sources of bioenergy.”

One biofuel advocate responded that it is “interesting to see environmental groups opposing electrification and discouraging EPA from including electricity as a renewable fuel under the RFS.” Further, “E15 has lower evaporative and exhaust emissions of volatile compounds” than E10 fuel that is the current standard blend nationally.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported May 23 that the White House is considering a broad waiver of summertime vapor pressure restrictions on fuel that would allow use of the more-volatile and potentially harmful fuel additive butane.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition earlier suggested this step to reduce fuel prices, writing to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-WV) May 5 to suggest the idea. The coalition wrote, “by choosing to only use ethanol as the blending agent, and not butane in conjunction with ethanol, the administration hampers the ability to have any true impact at the pump.”

The biofuels advocate says, however, that “we have seen or heard no evidence directly that the White House is considering relaxing volatility standards to allow butane blending this summer. It should be noted that the volatility (evaporative potential) of butane is 25 times higher than the volatility of pure ethanol and 5 times higher than the volatility of E10 blended gasoline.”