EPA to update fuel review process

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2014

U.S. EPA plans to update its renewable fuel review process with an eye toward cutting down long approval delays that biofuel producers say have stymied investments.
The agency said in a notice posted online that it would make internal processes more efficient and develop a new step-by-step guidance for petitioners. EPA also plans to launch an automated review process for previously approved inputs and technologies.”We have determined that improvements should be made to the petition process to enable more timely and efficient decision-making,” EPA said.Through the petition process, EPA assesses the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of new fuel feedstocks and technologies. Only when a fuel is approved can refiners use it to comply with the federal renewable fuel standard. Approval is generally seen as a catalyst for next-generation biofuels because it creates market demand.

Since 2010, EPA has received more than 50 petitions from companies spanning a variety of feedstocks and technologies, including corn ethanol technologies and biofuels made from advanced feedstocks like giant reed, biomass sorghum and jatropha. The agency has approved 19 pathways covering both ethanol and advanced biofuels. Thirty-six petitions are currently under review.

EPA’s process can stretch months, and even years in some cases, for individual fuels. A study last May found that companies that have petitioned the agency for new next-generation fuel types, or fuels other than corn ethanol, have had to wait an average of 1.37 years for a decision (Greenwire, May 28, 2013).

The delays have held up projects in the nascent advanced biofuel industry, according to a letter sent last year to the White House from the Advanced Ethanol Council.

“It’s absolutely critical for the private investment marketplace to have a transparent, expeditious and predictable resolution process for all proposed pathways,” the council told the White House, “or we face the prospect of losing these projects to other countries.”

In its notice, EPA said it believes the updates will improve the “long-term performance” of the petition process.

“Our objectives are a more efficient and transparent process with improved public service,” EPA said.

The revamp process should take about six months, the agency said. EPA has asked biofuel companies to delay submitting new fuel applications until the process is over.

EPA, though, said it will continue to review high-priority petitions. Those include fuels that have the potential to comply with the cellulosic biofuel mandate, or the annual target for fuels made from agricultural waste, grasses and other plant-based materials. It will also prioritize nonfood feedstocks and those that are easily dropped into the existing fuel distribution network.

Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council, applauded the agency’s action but warned that a six-month delay is a long time for startups and new technologies.

“We will continue to work with EPA to ensure that this process occurs quickly,” Coleman said in an email. “The final product needs to triage effectively and make sure that good projects can continue to make progress while critical questions about their respective pathways are answered. We cannot afford to have projects die on the vine or go overseas while waiting for a pathway.”