EPA Could Immediately Increase Volume of Low-Carbon Biofuels by Over 50 Percent

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The EPA is leaving 200 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels on the table, according to the newly formed Biomass Power Coalition, a group of biomass trade organizations, biomass power producers, and supporters (EESI is a supporting member).  That’s nearly half the total volume of the cellulosic fuel pool of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which is set at 419 million gallons for 2019 (roughly 1 percent of the total RFS fuel volume). As Congress seeks to rapidly decarbonize the transportation sector – EPA can and should activate this pathway that will provide another low-carbon transportation fuel into the marketplace today.

EPA could move to approve an electric, or “e-RIN,” pathway which has been on the books since 2014.  Doing so would allow biomass power producers to qualify their electricity as a cellulosic biofuel, which must meet a minimum greenhouse gas reduction of 60 percent relative to gasoline.  The lowest carbon biofuel category under the RFS must meet a 60 percent greenhouse reduction relative to gasoline, and in some cases, biogas is 91 percent less carbon intensive than gasoline.

Biomass power producers use waste resources, including biogas created from food waste, animal manures and waste water treatment sludge, as well as wood and orchard waste, to generate electricity. The United States produces more than 70 million tons of organic waste each year, primarily in the form of food waste, and non-edible sources, including livestock manure, agriculture wastes, waste water, and inedible food wastes. Untreated, these wastes produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 86 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide on a 20-year timescale.

Additionally, forestry operations and agriculture produce millions of tons of woody wastes a year.  In California alone, 129 million trees have died since 2010, due to a combination of drought, pest infestations and the amplifying effects of climate change.  While some of these trees must be left in the forest to return important nutrients to the soil and provide habitat for wildlife, leaving millions of dry tons of wood in California’s forests would increase wildfire risk to unacceptable levels. Currently, this excess biomass is mostly being dealt with in the worst possible manner – open burning – which is costing taxpayers millions of dollars and emits carbon dioxide as well as other harmful air pollutants, including particulate matter and smog precursors.

Recognizing that when these materials are improperly managed they pose a significant risk to the environment and public health, EPA opened the door to allowing this electricity produced from biomass to qualify under a new electric fuels pathway in 2014.  According to industry organizations, the move in 2014 generated a lot of buzz in their sectors, with more than 40 applications to the EPA from electricity producers to participate in the RFS.  However, EPA never moved to activate the proposed pathway, and now nearly five years later, the pathway lies dormant.

Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council, commented that “40 projects were developed, investors committed funding and partners lined up to build new infrastructure using waste biomass to produce renewable electricity. But these projects sit dormant due to EPA’s inaction to administer their own program.”

Under the proposed rule from EPA in 2014, several entities could receive the e-RIN, including electric vehicle owners, charging station owners, electric utilities, and electricity producers, and vehicle manufacturers. The Biomass Power Association asserts that the e-RIN should be given to the biomass power producer, similar to how the RFS attaches RINs to biofuels at the point of production.

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