Panel debate over emissions doesn’t follow partisan lines

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 4, 2015

It was an unusual scenario, to say the least.

Republican lawmakers yesterday needled witnesses on the nuances and intricacies of carbon accounting for biofuels — models created to showcase how well the fuels performed as a tool for averting climate change.

A recurring theme in the debate over the federal renewable fuel standard has been the ability of these fuels — particularly corn ethanol — to reduce carbon dioxide emissions when replacing fossil fuels in the country’s fuel supply. According to the most commonly used model from the Argonne National Laboratory, all biofuels — even the “first generation” corn ethanol — cut emissions over their life cycle by at least 20 percent.

John DeCicco, one of the witnesses at a House Science, Space and Technology joint subcommittee meeting yesterday to examine the progress of the RFS since it was enacted a decade ago, is one of the most vocal scientists who challenge the assumption that biofuels are carbon neutral — that is, that plants grown for biofuels remove carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

“When I read your bio, I was a little interested in why Republicans were bringing you to testify,” Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), chairman of the panel’s Subcommittee on the Environment, told DeCicco, a mechanical engineer with the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute whose models suggest that corn ethanol emits more greenhouse gas emissions over a life cycle than gasoline.

Indeed, DeCicco, whose curriculum vitae lists the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Audubon Society as previous employers, may seem like an odd witness to drive home a Republican message.

But his attendance at the Republican-led subcommittee hearing reflects the strange bedfellows that have formed around the RFS, where oil trade organizations promote environmental causes like climate change mitigation in order to discredit the RFS, which aims to ramp up biofuel production by 36 billion gallons by 2022.

DeCicco said his use of crop data in his model paint a difference picture of the climate benefits of biofuels, because he does not assume that all biofuel tailpipe emissions are reabsorbed by plants. This is especially the case when grasslands and forests are plowed to make way for corn fields.

Many scientific publications have backed biofuels’ carbon neutral assumption, said DeCicco. “Unfortunately, those publications got it wrong.”

Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, criticized DeCicco’s accounting method, saying DeCicco’s models rely on “additionality” — the idea that a grower would have planted biofuel crops regardless of the economic incentives to do so. This leaves out the assumption that consumers would replace biofuel with fossil fuel.

“It suspends reality regarding carbon accounting, and that’s why responsible regulatory agencies don’t do it that way,” Coleman said.

Though Bridenstine and the Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) were the biggest opponents to the RFS in the hearing, biofuels received support from Democratic Reps. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon and Don Beyer of Virginia and Republican Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois, who represents a district in one of the top-producing corn states in the country and is the son of former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Darin LaHood fiercely defended the mandate as a job creator and a reason for the state’s improved air quality.

“I look at those tangible benefits, and I also look at the jobs created in Illinois … they have benefitted from this law,” he said.

Farm-state lawmakers who support the mandate, particularly Republicans, were a rare presence at the hearing. Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.), who also sits on the House Agriculture Committee, questioned witnesses on the benefits of the program. He later told E&E Daily that he felt the amount of ethanol in the fuel supply should not rise above 10 percent, a level that the oil industry and small engine manufacturers say poses less risk to engine function. EPA has approved the sale of a fuel blend up to 15 percent ethanol for most vehicles.

“We’re OK with the 10 percent ethanol,” said Abraham, who said he represents a “huge” row crop district, citing the concerns from engine manufacturers that ethanol can corrode parts. Ethanol backers say that those concerned about 15 percent ethanol should avoid getting gasoline from pumps with the “E-15” sticker.

Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.), another Agriculture Committee member at the hearing, did not question the witnesses and left before the conclusion of the hearing.

EPA is set to finalize the required biofuel production volumes for 2014, 2015 and 2016 on Nov. 30. The proposal, released in May, scales back volumes of conventional ethanol and advanced, low-carbon biofuels from the levels signed into law in 2007.