EPA tentatively OKs biomass sorghum to be included in RFS 

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 6, 2015

U.S. EPA has given biofuels produced from biomass sorghum — a high-yield type of grass — a tentative green light to be included in the renewable fuel standard.

In a Federal Register notice Dec. 31, the agency said that its analysis of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from biomass sorghum biofuels shows that they could be eligible for the highest tier in the RFS. Biomass sorghum biofuels would likely reduce GHG emissions by at least 60 percent compared to a gasoline baseline, the standard for qualification as a cellulosic biofuel, EPA said.

“We anticipate that biofuels produced from biomass sorghum could qualify for cellulosic biofuel … if certain fuel production process technology conditions are met,” EPA said.

The 2007 renewable fuel standard required the nation to go beyond corn ethanol and develop next-generation biofuels. But before refiners can receive credit for using new types of biofuels, EPA must approve the fuels based on a lifecycle review of greenhouse gas emissions.

Approval by EPA is generally seen as a catalyst for next-generation biofuels because it creates market demand.

In late 2012, EPA approved grain sorghum — the type that is fed to animals as livestock feed — as a feedstock for conventional ethanol. But the agency has not yet made a decision on a 2012 petition from the National Sorghum Producers on biofuels produced from biomass sorghum. A few companies in the United States, including Ceres Inc. and NexSteppe, are developing varieties of high-biomass sorghum with the goal of producing a feedstock for biofuels production.

Biomass sorghum is capable of growing about 20 feet tall and is bred to have low moisture at the time of harvest and to need few inputs. An acre of biomass sorghum would likely yield 13 dry tons per acre by 2022, making it more productive than other types of grasses such as switchgrass, EPA said.

There is currently no commercial production of biomass sorghum in the country, but production is likely to be concentrated in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas.

EPA said that it has assumed the emissions associated with biomass sorghum are the same as those associated with the production of biofuels from switchgrass, an analysis that likely yields a conservative estimate of greenhouse gas emissions. Biomass sorghum biofuels would also likely displace less land than switchgrass because of the higher yield of sorghum, EPA said.

The agency said that it would accept public comment on its analysis and incorporate comments into its decision about how biofuels produced from biomass sorghum are treated in the RFS.

EPA has taken heat from the biofuels industry, as well as from sorghum producers, over delays in approving new types of biofuels feedstocks and production processes (Greenwire, April 29). Acknowledging the long time frames for approval, the agency in October announced changes in a bid to speed up the approval process (Greenwire, Oct. 1).

Since then, EPA has approved a slate of conventional ethanol technologies, but the agency has yet to make a dent in a backlog of advanced biofuel petitions.