EPA to issue report on RFS impacts next spring

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 4, 2017

U.S. EPA will report on the environmental effects of biofuel mandates next spring, four years later than required by Congress, the agency said in documents accompanying its announcement of renewable fuel volumes for the next year.

The report to Congress is supposed to be completed every three years, but EPA has produced only one since the passage of the renewable fuel standard in 2005.

The agency faces increasing pressure to release the report, as well as a separate and even more delayed analysis of air quality impacts, which was due in 2009 but will not be ready until 2024, according to EPA.

In its published responses to public comments on the renewable fuel levels, EPA said it sees growing indications that the mandates encourage land conversion but that the issue is complex and needs further analysis.

“There is more evidence of negative environmental impacts associated with land use change and biofuel production than there was suggested in 2011,” EPA said, referring to its last triennial review. “However, the magnitude of the effect from biofuels is still unknown and has not been quantified to date.”

Ethanol supporters say it’s cleaner than gasoline and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Allegations that the mandate encourages the conversion of uncultivated land to biofuel crops contradict Department of Agriculture findings that agricultural land use is shrinking, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, an industry group.

Critics of biofuel standards have zeroed in on the environmental report as potential ammunition to force a scaling-back of the RFS or to hold back any increases in ethanol mandates in the next few years.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called on EPA to speed its work, telling Pruitt in a letter today that he’d like to see the triennial report by the end of this year and the air quality report by next Sept. 30.

EPA’s estimate of completing the air quality review in seven years is “unacceptable,” Barrasso said.

“EPA cannot ignore the will of Congress and the requirements of the Clean Air Act for 17 years,” the senator added.

In his letter, Barrasso cited testimony in June 2017 by the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force that EPA’s own data indicate additional corn ethanol production connected to the RFS has higher lifetime greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.

“A growing body of independent academic research has also documented the RFS’ impacts on air, water and land quality, wildlife habitat, and other sensitive ecosystems,” Barrasso wrote.

EPA also faces a lawsuit by the Sierra Club over the reports’ delays. Yesterday, the Sierra Club cited land-use concerns in criticizing EPA’s decision to keep renewable fuel mandates about even for the next year (E&E News PM, Oct. 19).

“Scott Pruitt may be content to oversee the degradation and destruction of native grasslands in the name of energy production, but we will continue to challenge him every step of the way,” said Andrew Linhardt, the Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director for transportation, in a news release.

The Renewable Fuels Association said a study for USDA found that corn ethanol from a typical dry mill reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent compared to gasoline, even when hypothetical emissions from land-use changes are included.