One step forward, two steps back on carbon emissions

Source: By Brent Erickson, The Hill • Posted: Thursday, October 1, 2015

In August this year, President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon pollution from power plants by millions of tons annually over the next 15 years. It represents a key element in the administration’s effort to take a leading role in addressing climate change, especially as countries prepare for the United Nations COP21 events in Paris this coming December. Curiously, the announcement of the Clean Power Plan came just one week after the EPA closed comments on a proposed rule for the Renewable Fuel Standard that would forego millions of tons of achievable carbon emission reductions from the transportation sector. It is ironic and troubling that the administration’s wavering on the RFS is in direct odds with its ambition to lead the world in addressing climate change.

The president’s Clean Power Plan predicts that by 2030 renewable energy generation will grow 30 percent and energy efficient measures will save enough energy to power 30 million homes. The plan also predicts that millions of tons of carbon will be saved each year as power plants switch from coal to cheaper natural gas, since using natural gas emits half the carbon that burning coal does. Overall, the administration expects that carbon emissions from the power sector will be 32 percent lower by 2030, reducing emissions by 870 million tons annually or the equivalent of permanently removing 166 million cars from the road. And the administration correctly touts these goals as part of a major commitment to lead the world in mitigating climate change, cleaning the air, and improving people’s health.

But there are troubling inconsistencies over at EPA. EPA acknowledges that Congress in 2007 set aggressive standards for renewable fuel use in order to displace oil and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. And the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) has estimated that over its 10-year lifespan, the RFS has displaced nearly 1.9 billion barrels of foreign oil and reduced U.S. transportation-related carbon emissions by 589.33 million metric tons, equivalent to removing more than 124 million cars from the road over the decade. Nevertheless, the agency is proposing to allow oil refiners to hold biofuel use below 10 percent of the transportation fuel mix for the foreseeable future and to completely rewrite the volumes set by Congress. The plan would forego achievable carbon emission reductions through 2022 from the second largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S. economy. The transportation sector is the source of 28 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, only slightly behind the power generation sector’s 32 percent share and nearly equal to the emissions from both industry (20 percent) and agriculture (10 percent) put together.

BIO further estimates that EPA’s failure to uphold congressionally set statutory volumes for the RFS in 2014 resulted in an increase of 17.4 million metric tons of carbon, which is the equivalent of putting an additional 3.6 million cars back on the road during the year. For 2015, gasoline and diesel consumption are both projected to increase compared to 2014, so EPA’s failure to uphold the statutory RFS volumes for biofuel use would result in an increase of 34.9 million metric tons of carbon above achievable levels, the equivalent of putting 7.3 million additional cars back on the road for 2015. Although gasoline use is projected to decline slightly in 2016, diesel use is expected to continue to increase. EPA’s failure to keep the RFS volumes on course will result in an increase of 56.2 million tons of CO2e in 2016 compared to achievable levels under the statute. This is equivalent to putting an additional 11.7 million cars on the road in 2016, compared to 2015.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center conducted a separate analysis of the carbon emission impact of EPA’s proposal. The principal researcher Steffen Mueller presents evidence that the lifecycle carbon balance of biofuel production continues to improve. He reviewed recent studies showing that biofuel and agricultural feedstock production are becoming more energy and fossil resource efficient, improving the lifecycle carbon score for biofuels. He also notes that observed land use change prompted by biofuels is less than predicted by studies from the past decade. Mueller’s results show that EPA’s proposal to decrease ethanol use by 1.6 billion gallons in 2015 will increase carbon emissions by 4,520,000 metric tons CO2e for that year, equivalent to putting nearly 1 million (951,600) additional passenger vehicles on the road.

The emissions compound over time and the overall effect is to allow carbon emissions from the transportation sector to erode the planned carbon savings from the power sector. It makes no sense to count carbon savings from the Clean Power Plan while undercutting the Renewable Fuel Standard. Setting such a course is a dubious strategy for demonstrating U.S. leadership at the upcoming UN Framework on Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Paris this December. It could prove embarrassing for the administration when other nations figure out EPA is increasing emissions in the transportation sector.

Erickson is executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).