EPA draft report again fails to directly tie environmental harms to RFS

Source: By Inside EPA • Posted: Thursday, January 5, 2023

EPA is telling Congress that its renewable fuel standard (RFS) program may have caused some relatively minor expansion of cropland for ethanol production, possibly resulting in environmental damage, but the agency again fails to tie any adverse effects directly to the biofuel program.

As in prior reports, a draft version of EPA’s just-released third report to Congress on the environmental effects of the RFS finds it difficult to tie specific expansions of cropland or biofuel production to the RFS, making assessments of the program’s direct impacts speculative.

To the extent that the RFS has driven increased production of biofuels, especially ethanol, or conversion of land to this end, EPA finds the overall impacts likely quite small nationally, but potentially significant on a local level.

“Disentangling the effect of the RFS Program . . . is difficult given the many co-occurring factors that affect biofuels in the United States. As a mandate, the RFS Program could have driven most of the increase in ethanol production and consumption in the United States. However, as events played out, non-RFS factors that are known to influence the market were favorable and appear to explain much of the increase in ethanol production and consumption in the United States,” the Jan. 3 draft report finds.

The RFS “likely had modest negative impacts on many of the environmental effects reviewed in this report.” However, specific areas “where environmental effects may have occurred cannot yet be quantified with confidence because the specific areas of land that were affected by the RFS Program versus other factors are unknown.”

By statute, EPA must report to Congress on the environmental impacts of the RFS every three years, but the agency has failed to do so, issuing the first report in 2011, but the second only in 2018. Release of the new draft version starts a 60-day window for public comment that ends March 6.

A contractor-led peer review panel will also examine the document and give feedback prior to EPA releasing a final version.

Some environmentalists and others opposed to the RFS biofuel blending mandates are highly critical of what they say are the program’s negative consequences for air and water pollution, and on habitats for federally protected species. These critics have seized on remarks in previous EPA triennial reports to Congress to advance their claims that the program harms the environment.

Further, many skeptics doubt the RFS reduces greenhouse gas emissions as it is required to by law. However, the draft report does not examine the GHG effects of biofuels, and is instead focused on air, water, soil and species issues. A key theme that influences discussion of all these areas is land-use change driven by the RFS.

Environmental groups have attempted several times to force EPA to conduct full-blown Endangered Species Act consultations between EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, so far without success.

Highly Uncertain

While the Clean Air Act also requires EPA to analyze the RFS program’s likely future environmental impacts, the report says this is highly uncertain due to a host of factors, including farming practices, market developments and also the agency’s own RFS biofuel blending targets for 2023, 2024 and 2025.

While EPA has proposed these blending levels under its “set” rule, providing for steady ethanol blending and an increase in advanced and cellulosic biofuels, the agency will not finalize the volumes until the summer.

Evidence for the RFS driving land-use changes is weaker for ethanol, which still satisfies most of the RFS mandate, than it is for other biofuels such as biodiesel, the report finds.

The report “concludes that the RFS Program itself likely played a relatively minor role (0-0.4 billion gallons per year) in the growth of corn ethanol in the U.S. from 2002-2012 and may have played a more important role (0-2.1 billion gallons per year) since 2013.”

For biodiesel and renewable diesel, “the conclusion on the attributional effect of the RFS Program is different. There is evidence that the RFS Program has driven a significant portion of the use of these biofuels since 2010; however, there is insufficient information available to quantify the attributional effect of the RFS Program,” the report says.

“Given the estimated range in the volume of corn ethanol attributable to the RFS Program, this report estimates the RFS Program’s effect on corn ethanol production and consumption resulted in up to approximately 1.9 million acres of additional cropland between 2005 and 2016, and up to approximately 3.5 million acres of additional corn, with many years of no effect. The 1.9 million acres of cropland corresponds with less than 1% of all cropland in 2017, but approximately 20% of the estimated cropland expansion between 2008 and 2016.”

Further, the “3.5 million acres of corn corresponds with less than 5% of all planted corn in 2017 but up to 35% of the increase in corn acreage between 2008 and 2016.”

“Thus, though small relative to the total amount of cropland or corn, these potential effects from the RFS Program may be locally significant where the land use changes occurred. Cropland expansion often leads to increases in soil erosion, pesticide and fertilizer applications, and losses of seminatural habitat. Based on these effects on total cropland, the RFS Program likely had modest negative impacts on many of the environmental effects reviewed in this report,” EPA says.

But while the national environmental effects are probably “relatively modest,” these “may have important cumulative impacts on the environment.”

Also, the effects may “fall disproportionally in certain areas of the United States, such as in rural areas with greater amounts of grassland habitat lost to corn or soybeans. Some areas are known to contain locally endemic species and other important local environmental resources, which may appear underrepresented in a large national-scale assessment. Thus, modest national effects do not preclude larger more local effects.”

Air Emissions

With respect to air quality, the report reiterates the conclusions of prior EPA reports that emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ammonia (NH3), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) “can be impacted at each stage of biofuel production, distribution, and usage.”

EPA’s analyses “suggest that total emissions from corn ethanol are generally higher than from gasoline for VOCs, SOx, PM2.5, [coarse PM], and NOx, and that total emissions from soybean biodiesel are generally higher than from diesel for VOCs, SOx, and NOx.”

However, “the location of emissions from biofuel production tends to be in more rural areas where there are fewer people. How this translates to health effects on communities is complex, as it depends not only on the number of people, but on their demographics and vulnerability, as well as the dose-response relationship which is pollutant-specific, among other factors. Trends suggest that the potential lifecycle effects from biofuels are decreasing over time as industries mature and practices improve.”

With regard to water quality, EPA finds the potential for increased impacts such as nitrogen runoff and eutrophication tied to increases in corn and soybean cultivation. However, continued implementation of conservation practices “has been shown to reduce soil erosion, nitrate loss, and phosphorus release.” Also, the water intensity of ethanol production in biorefineries decreased by 54 percent from 1998 to 2017, EPA finds.

For threatened and endangered (T&E) species, EPA lacks data at a sufficiently fine scale — below the county level — to say with any certainty whether particular species were impacted by habitat loss or RFS-related pollution, but the agency acknowledges impacts are possible.

“Further evaluation would be needed to quantify the magnitude of any historical impacts of the RFS Program on biodiversity. Any effects may be relatively small compared to those of total U.S. cropland, but may be more important regionally or locally,” EPA says.

The agency adds, “whether T&E species were impacted by the RFS Program during this period (2008 to 2016) is also possible, but unknown, and requires further evaluation.” — Stuart Parker (sparker@iwpnews.com)