Moving Beyond the RFS

Source: By Douglas A. Durante, Clean Fuels Development Coalition • Posted: Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The global biofuels community is without a doubt watching the developments in the US with the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and might be understandably confused.  How is a program that was passed by the U.S.  Congress and supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, and happily signed into law by two different Presidents, so controversial?  How can this program be considered so successful that is was expanded and passed a second time, drain such resources from the biofuels industry and draw such ire and venom from the petroleum industry?  I have met people from other countries who seem bewildered, asking how renewable biofuels like ethanol that only have a small portion of the massive US motor fuels market, leaving 90% to the oil companies, be such a problem.

After 35 years supporting the development of ethanol, I wish I had a good answer.  The obvious one is that the petroleum industry is simply bigger, badder, and can out-yell and outspend our industry in order to keep the market they feel they are entitled to, and one built on tax incentives, government support, and millions spent lobbying to keep it that way. We are in a constant battle every year, throughout the year, on issues related to this renewable requirement.  It results in dragging ethanol and biofuels through the mud and questioning the decisions and pathway we had already chosen.

What my coalition is doing is arguing that we need to take a better look at the product all this money and influence has forced on us.  When we do, we don’t like what we see, and I’ll get to that in a moment.   But first its important to note that all the money the refiners and the petroleum industry has spent has had its intended impact in that the public is well aware of the real or imagined problems with ethanol—and most are indeed imagined. We are not using food for fuel, we are producing both food and fuel.  We do not require more energy to produce ethanol than we produce.  We do not increase carbon emissions, we reduce them, as well as emissions from the fuel itself.  We do not use more fertilizer than years past, we do not raise food prices, we do not plow under pristine land, we do not raise fuel prices, and the list goes on.

So lets increase awareness of just what comes with gasoline, and it should change the perception of the alternatives.  Gasoline is useless unless it has a sufficient octane rating and that is where the problem lies.  Refiners synthesize the most toxic, carcinogenic, and energy intensive compounds in oil to raise octane. The result is a high toxic content fuel producing microscopic particulate emissions that are being linked to everything from respiratory disease like asthma to neurological problems like autism.  And of course, petroleum products are the source of carbon and greenhouse gases.

So how do we stop the endless war that is the RFS and look ahead, not backwards?  The  growth opportunity for ethanol, and its highest and true value is to reduce those toxic compounds and to clean up gasoline.  Ethanol has the highest octane rating of any allowable fuel or additive and is a low cost, low carbon option.  But that value can only be realized if we are able to increase volumes beyond the limits of the RFS, which we can’t do because we are blocked  out of the US market through the negative attacks of the oil industry and the regulatory obstacles of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Our EPA  recently approved the use of ethanol from 10% to 15% at the cost of millions of dollars that took 10 years.  Despite the fact that blends beyond 15% provide that higher octane that can replace toxics, and higher ethanol is less polluting and more efficient, our EPA has made any blend above that illegal.  Furthermore, they have effectively made it impossible to even dispense those fuels. They refuse to update lifecycle and emission models that penalize ethanol despite what we believe is overwhelming evidence that they are incorrect.

Perhaps most egregious is the fact that in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 Congress required EPA to reduce these toxic compounds in gasoline to the maximum extent and as technologies became available.  Instead they have done the minimum in this regard, not the maximum, which would be to recognize higher ethanol blends are a maximum technology.

Make no mistake, I support the RFS and believe it has and continues to provide extraordinary benefits. We look at from the standpoint that even if it were not the controversy it is, and everything was just fine, where do we go from here?  Starch/corn ethanol is capped at 15 billion gallons per year so the RFS is no longer a driver for growth.   However, if these obstacle were removed and our government actually tried to further biofuels rather than hold them back,  the requirements of the RFS would be easily surpassed and free market principles  would make the RFS levels truly a floor, and not a ceiling.

Douglas A. Durante is the director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition.  The Clean Fuels Development Coalition was established in 1988 and supports the advancement of biofuels through a broad constituency of agriculture, ethanol, automotive, and health and environmental interests.  For more information visit