My Turn: Paul R. Pescatello: We need a simple fix on biofuels

Source: By Paul R. Pescatello, Providence Journal • Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2017

America is home to vast renewable resources, and Rhode Island is no exception. The University of Rhode Island home to world-class marine science and energy research, and the state holds enormous potential for wood and algae-based biofuels. Perhaps that’s why no one was inadvertently offended when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., was named a “Champion of Algae” earlier this year by biomass boosters in Washington.

BioProcess Algae is a perfect example. Using technology developed in Rhode Island, this company has teamed up with one of the nation’s most innovative ethanol producers, Green Plains, to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into biomass that can be used for the next generation of biofuels. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, homegrown ethanol reduces full lifecycle carbon emissions by an average of 43 percent compared with gasoline. And new advanced and cellulosic varieties can curb emissions by 100 percent or even pull carbon from the atmosphere over time, according to the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

Much of this progress has been made possible by the Renewable Fuel Standard, which ensures that homegrown biofuels have an opportunity to compete at the pump against fossil fuels. But that policy is only one part of the equation. Consumer-driven demand for cleaner, low-cost biofuels rises every year, and retailers in 29 states are responding by offering higher blends of biofuels at the pump, including E15, which contains 15 percent ethanol and is approved for all passenger vehicles built since 2001.

These fuels are more common in states like Iowa and Minnesota, but they yield environmental and economic benefits across the map. Higher blends also provide the most promising market opportunities for advanced biofuels. Without fuels like E15, there would be little incentive to invest in the research and development that’s keeping America at the forefront of biomass-based renewable energy technologies.

Unfortunately, there’s one obsolete Environmental Protection Agency regulation on summertime fuel blends that has put a three-season cap on sales of E15. It’s called Reid Vapor Pressure, and the policy was last updated before higher biofuel blends were part of the conversation. It effectively holds traditional fuels to a lower standard than E15, locking the cleaner option out of the market from June 1 to September 15. The whole point of an RVP standard was to limit toxic emissions from gasoline, but now the policy is forcing retailers to offer less earth-friendly fuels during the peak driving season.

Worse, in markets where it’s available, E15 sells for 5 to 10 cents less than standard blends, so consumers lose access to a lower-cost option every summer.

A simple update to the law has been offered by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers looking to protect consumer choice and expand market opportunities for homegrown energy.

Normally, one might expect this legislation, the Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act, to fly through Congress. After all, it just lets consumers pick their own fuel in the summer, promoting investment, U.S. jobs, and clean energy in the process. But oil companies are having none of it.

For the good of consumers and the future of clean energy, let’s hope Senator Whitehouse and his colleagues on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee don’t squander this rare, bipartisan opportunity to promote American innovation.

Paul R. Pescatello is president and CEO of the New England Biotech Association. He also chairs We Work for Health Connecticut and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association’s (CBIA) Bioscience Growth Council.