EPA’s internal watchdog starts RFS study

Source: Amanda Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, October 19, 2015

With the Obama administration under growing political pressure over its contentious renewable fuel standard, U.S. EPA’s inspector general announced plans yesterday to study the agency’s implementation of the program.

The Office of Inspector General said in a memo to top EPA air and science officials that the study would determine whether the agency complied with RFS reporting requirements.

Investigators are also seeking information on whether EPA has updated its life-cycle analysis of biofuels’ greenhouse gas impacts as it receives new data from studies required by law.

“The anticipated benefits of this project,” OIG said, “are to ensure public health and the environment are protected by verifying the EPA is complying with reporting requirements, and is considering statutorily mandated studies when promulgating the RFS.”

Congress passed legislation setting up the current version of the RFS in 2007, calling for refiners to use increasing amounts of ethanol and advanced biofuels in petroleum gasoline and diesel through 2022.

The OIG study comes as many industry sectors and academics are questioning the benefits of the policy. Earlier this week, University of Tennessee researchers found the RFS has not delivered on its promised greenhouse gas reductions and other environmental benefits (Greenwire, Oct. 15).

Under the RFS program, EPA is required to determine through a life-cycle analysis whether different biofuels achieve greenhouse gas reductions. Renewable fuels must achieve certain thresholds of reductions before refiners can use them to meet their annual biofuel requirements.

OIG said it planned to look specifically at whether EPA incorporated the results of a 2011 study by the National Academy of Sciences on biofuels into its life-cycle analyses. That study questioned whether the RFS was an effective policy for achieving greenhouse gas reductions largely because of land-use changes associated with ethanol production.

The office said it will also look at how EPA used the results from its first report to Congress in 2011 on the renewable fuel standard. That report concluded that there could be negative effects associated with increased biofuels production but said the extent of the effects depended on the choice of biofuel feedstock, whether conservation practices were used to grow biofuel crops and the efficiency of future biofuel technology.

OIG asked EPA officials to furnish certain information, including documentation of the agency’s response to the 2011 National Academy of Sciences study and reports to Congress.

Supporters of biofuels have credited the RFS for achieving greenhouse gas reductions and point to research from Argonne National Laboratory that has found corn ethanol production decreases emissions by more than 30 percent compared to a gasoline baseline.

Biofuel producers have given EPA heat recently for a proposal to lower the annual RFS mandates for refiners compared to the levels Congress wrote into the 2007 statute.