Obama admin likely to defend next-generation fuels at Senate hearing

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, September 30, 2013

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be the main attraction at a hearing Thursday on advanced biofuel production, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee announced last week.

Vilsack will constitute the first witness panel at the hearing, which comes as the advanced biofuel sector faces pressure over lower volumes of cellulosic fuel than originally projected in the 2007 renewable fuel standard. A second panel will feature company executives and trade group representatives working to scale up and advocate for advanced biofuel technologies.

“The hearing will examine the role domestically-produced, advanced, non-food based biofuels are playing in creating jobs and strengthening the rural economy,” the Senate Agriculture panel said in a statement.

EPA’s regulations for the renewable fuel standard this year require that refiners blend 2.75 billion ethanol-equivalent gallons of advanced biofuel into petroleum-based transportation fuel. The bulk of that, 1.28 billion gallons, is supposed to come from biodiesel — a fuel made from soybean oil, animal fat or used cooking grease — while 6 million gallons is supposed to be cellulosic biofuel, or fuel made from plant-based materials like agricultural residue, perennial grasses and municipal solid waste.

The rest is expected to come from other advanced biofuels, including sugar-cane ethanol imports from Brazil.

While biodiesel production is progressing strongly this year and on track to top U.S. EPA’s target and fill some of the gap in the advanced biofuel bucket, cellulosic biofuel production has yet to top 100,000 gallons. Several companies are working to scale up technology, though, and are ramping up production or scheduled to finish construction on commercial-scale facilities within the next couple of years.

At the hearing Thursday, Vilsack is likely to defend the Obama administration’s investments in the advanced biofuel industry and the renewable fuel standard, which is being attacked by a strange-bedfellow coalition of groups representing oil, livestock, food and environmental interests.

The bulk of the Agriculture Department’s investments fall under two programs: the Biorefinery Assistance Program, which provides companies with grants and loans to build large-scale biofuel facilities, and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, through which it provides funding to help farmers establish fields of advanced energy crops.

Senators will also hear from a representative of Sapphire Energy Inc., an advanced biofuel company that is operating a large algae farm on a desert site in Columbus, N.M. Sapphire feeds its algae a diet of carbon dioxide, sunlight and nonpotable water and harvests “green crude” produced from the microorganisms that can be refined into jet fuel and diesel.

Earlier this year, Sapphire announced it had finished paying off a $54.5 million federal loan guarantee for the project given to the company in December 2009 through the Biorefinery Assistance Program (E&ENews PM, July 30).

Jim Collins, DuPont Industrial Biosciences’ senior vice president, is also scheduled to testify at Thursday’s hearing. DuPont is building one of the nation’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants, a $200 million facility in Nevada, Iowa, that will use corn crop residues as a feedstock (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2012).

The witnesses are likely to receive a more favorable reception from Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who has been a strong supporter of biobased products, than biofuels advocates received during a series of hearings held before the August congressional recess by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

As the Senate Agriculture panel convenes its hearing, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are continuing an effort to introduce a broad reform to the renewable fuel standard, citing concerns about refiners reaching the technically feasible limit to the amount of ethanol that can be blended into petroleum-based gasoline. Critics also cite the lower-than-expected volumes of cellulosic biofuel as a reason to re-examine the standard.

On Friday, ethanol trade groups met with Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to continue their push for no legislative changes to the RFS.

“No one has yet identified a problem with the RFS that cannot be fixed with EPA’s existing statutory authority,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, who attended the meeting with the lawmakers. “No amount of hyperbole or fearmongering by oil companies can change the fact that legislation is not necessary. In fact, changing the RFS now in any way will reverse the progress we have made in reducing our dependence on foreign oil and lowering consumer costs.”

Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, Oct. 3, at 9:30 a.m. in 328A Russell.

Witnesses: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Mike Lynch, managing director of green innovation for NASCAR; Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council; Jim Collins, senior vice president of DuPont Polymers and Industrial Biosciences; Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs of Sapphire Energy; and Sumesh Arora, vice president of Innovate Mississippi and director of Strategic Biomass Solutions.