EPA’s scaled-back targets would boost emissions — study

Source: By Amanda Peterka, E&E • Posted: Friday, August 14, 2015

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago say U.S. EPA’s proposal to scale back ethanol targets compared with the levels that Congress anticipated would increase carbon dioxide emissions.

In an analysis released this week by biofuel advocates, UIC’s Energy Resources Center found that decreasing the ethanol mandate as proposed would increase CO2 emissions equivalent to adding nearly 1 million passenger vehicles on the road in 2015.

“Our work has demonstrated that, over the last 10 years, steady reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have materialized as biofuels became a more efficient, high-quality product,” said Steffen Mueller, a principal economist at the Energy Resources Center.

Congress passed the current renewable fuel standard in 2007 to require that refiners blend increasing amounts of conventional ethanol and advanced biofuels into petroleum-based gasoline and diesel. EPA’s proposal earlier this year would set refiners’ blending targets for 2014, 2015 and 2016.

The proposal would set the 2014 targets at actual production levels. The proposal also calls for 13.4 billion gallons of corn ethanol in 2015 and 14 billion gallons in 2016 — both lower than the 15 billion-gallon level that Congress set for the corn-based fuel beginning in 2015.

EPA has called the proposal “ambitious” but reflective of market realities. The agency said there are short-term market restrictions collectively known as the “blend wall” that prohibit more ethanol from being added to the fuel supply. EPA says it will finalize the targets by Nov. 30, the deadline agreed to in a settlement agreement with oil industry trade groups.

The team at the University of Illinois at Chicago center used a model developed by Argonne National Laboratory to quantify life-cycle emissions of corn ethanol. The team found that reducing the corn ethanol requirements in 2015 from 15 billion gallons to 13.4 billion gallons would release more than 4.5 million metric tons of additional carbon dioxide than would otherwise be emitted.

Earlier this summer, the Energy Resources Center testified about its results at a public hearing held by EPA on the agency’s proposal.

“Our peer-reviewed research has demonstrated that today’s average corn-based ethanol significantly reduces GHG emissions compared to petroleum based gasoline — even when potential indirect land use change (ILUC) emissions are considered for ethanol,” presenters for the center told EPA at the June hearing, according to written testimony. “It is our belief that the RFS has played an important role in creating a stable market environment that encourages development of, and investment in, new technologies.”

The findings come as other research has questioned the greenhouse gas benefits of producing ethanol (Greenwire, Aug. 12).

Biofuel advocates said the new study by the UIC researchers bolstered their arguments that EPA’s proposal would be detrimental to the country. They’ve raised concerns that the agency’s proposal would lead to more greenhouse gas emissions even as the Obama administration has made climate change one of its top priorities.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents advanced biofuel producers, previously released a study — also based on the Argonne life-cycle model — finding that lowering biofuel blending mandates would result in higher greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are disappointed that the same federal agency charged to protect human health and the environment is proposing a rule change that would directly lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ken Hartman, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.