EPA years late reporting on standard’s land-use effects

Source: Marc Heller, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2016

U.S. EPA is a few years late reporting to Congress on the renewable fuel standard’s effects on land use, and agency officials have no timeline on when they’ll produce such a report.

EPA acting Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Janet McCabe told lawmakers at a hearing last week that she can’t say when her agency will update information on the RFS’s effect on the environment, despite a requirement in the RFS law that EPA file reports with Congress every three years.

The last report came in 2011, when EPA said the environmental impacts from biofuels are “negative but limited in magnitude.”

The report’s delay caught the attention of Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who told McCabe that Congress needs the reports in order to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. Welch, an outspoken critic of the renewable fuel standard, has introduced legislation to roll it back by capping ethanol blends at 9.7 percent, down from the 10 percent commonly seen now.

“This data is really important in assessing whether the hopes and aspirations of the Congress about the original law are actually working or not,” Welch said at the hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power last Wednesday.

The Environmental Working Group and the National Wildlife Federation, critics of the RFS, believe the agency has “really dropped the ball” in not producing the report amid other evidence that the program is responsible for significant land-use changes, said Emily Cassidy, a research analyst at the EWG.

Congress enacted the RFS in 2005 and updated the law in 2007. For each year, EPA sets volumes for renewable fuels, including conventional ethanol and advanced biofuels — a task that McCabe said the agency emphasized over the three-year report to Congress.

“We don’t like missing deadlines,” she told the panel. Although she said she didn’t have any new information for Welch, McCabe said EPA evaluates land use when it sets alternative fuel volumes.

The report — which totaled 220 pages in 2011 — examines land use, water quality, soil quality, air quality and ecosystem health. In the 2011 report, EPA said the greatest land-use concern was the conversion of uncultivated land into corn production, including acreage previously enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

Expansion of cropland was anticipated but not yet observed, the agency said at that time.

Since then, critics of the RFS have pointed to studies indicating loss of prairie and other previously uncultivated land to biofuel crops, primarily corn. Welch cited a University of Wisconsin study from 2015 showing that 7 million acres of land was converted to crops, including corn and soy used for biofuel, between 2002 and 2008.

Farm groups dispute such analysis, saying that the satellite imagery USDA relies on isn’t always accurate and that budget cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program have resulted in fewer acres enrolled — leading farmers to plant crops of their choice.