RFA’s Dinneen offers blistering critique of Searchinger research, talks future of RFS policy reform 

Source: By Monica Trauzzi, E&E • Posted: Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Following the release of a controversial paper by the World Resources Institute’s Timothy Searchinger on the land-use and climate change impacts of bioenergy production, the renewable fuels industry is pushing back against the research. During today’s OnPoint, Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, gives his take on the efficiency of feedstock production and the impact of biofuels on food costs. He also talks about the ongoing efforts in Congress to reform the renewable fuel standard.

Click here to watch today’s OnPoint.

Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I’m Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. Bob, nice to have you back on the show.

Bob Dinneen: Always good to be with you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: So, Bob, I recently had the World Resources Institute’s Tim Searchinger on the show to talk about his latest research on land use, climate change and bioenergy production. It’s research that’s received heavy pushback from the renewable fuels community as well as the renewable energy folks, the forest biomass industry. How much more efficient is the production of feedstocks for biofuels now compared to 2008 when Searchinger released his initial research?

Bob Dinneen: Well, it’s much more efficient, but you’re absolutely right. This is not any new analysis that he’s done; he’s just regurgitating what he did in 2008, which was thoroughly repudiated by people in the community. So, I mean, Tim Searchinger has this notion. It reminds me of Thomas Malthus, who in the 17th century warned everybody that there was no way that farmers could keep up with the growing population throughout the world, and that in the 18th century you were going to see starvation and devastation. And of course Malthus was wrong now and Searchinger’s wrong today.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, so just walk me through the logistics. If you’re using land to produce feedstocks for biofuels, that’s not land that’s going to be used for food.

Bob Dinneen: Well, in the ethanol industry, of course, we are producing both food and fuel because we’re only using the starch in the production of the ethanol. All of the protein, all of the vitamins, all of the feed value of the corn is then sold to poultry and livestock markets across the world. In fact, we produced 39 million metric tons of distillers’ feed last year. That’s enough feed to feed every cattle fed on a feedlot throughout the entire United States. So we’re doing both.

But he also misses an important point, because we are taking carbon that — and recycling it. And what he sort of ignores is that there are 330 million Americans that are going to wake up and use carbon fuels every day. So do you want those Americans driving on carbon that has been extracted from coal or petroleum products and released into the atmosphere, or do you want to use carbon that’s being recycled?

Monica Trauzzi: And he argues that renewable energy can meet the majority of our energy needs.

Bob Dinneen: Well, it’s going to be a critical component of our future without a doubt, but you said renewables.

Monica Trauzzi: Renewable energy.

Bob Dinneen: You know, look, we’re going to need all forms of energy, and renewables has got to be an important part of our future. He would I think discount what renewables are doing today, but already ethanol blends are 10 percent of the nation’s motor fuel supply. And if the renewable fuel standard is allowed to work as it is intended to do, we can produce even more, from other feedstocks, new technologies. The industry is really evolving in exciting ways today.

Monica Trauzzi: Climate change is a global issue, and he’s taking a global view on land-use issues. Do you think that land use should be viewed through that lens, or should we be looking country to country?

Bob Dinneen: Well, look, it is a global issue, and you do need to look at it that way. But in the United States, when we created our renewable fuels programs, we were in fact very sensitive to it. I mean, one of the reasons that there’s such a response when Tim Searchinger lays out these theories is that real-world data has proven him wrong, because since the RFS has been in place, cropland in the United States has been reduced. Forestland in the United States has actually increased. So there isn’t the kind of displacement that his theories would suggest would occur.

But it’s more than that, Monica. Not only does real-world data undermine all of his theory, the law itself doesn’t allow it in two ways. The law itself has capped the amount of corn-derived ethanol that can be used, but more importantly there’s a provision that says if cropland increases as a consequence of this program, we’re going to suspend it. So none of what Tim Searchinger has to say applies to the U.S. biofuels policy or the renewable fuel standard.

Monica Trauzzi: His research was pretty widely covered in the mainstream press. Are you concerned that because of that it could become a significant part of the congressional debate we see happening right now on the RFS?

Bob Dinneen: Well, look, it’s no surprise that it gets a lot of coverage when API’s PR firm is making sure that every reporter has a copy of it with their spin attached to it, and I suspect that they will try to make that a part of the congressional debate as well. But ultimately the truth catches up, and he cannot escape the fact that real-world data belies everything he says. And he can’t escape the fact that the statute doesn’t allow what he says will happen.

Monica Trauzzi: Senators Feinstein and Toomey introduced an amendment during the Keystone debate that would remove corn ethanol from the RFS because of its impact on the environment and food costs. Do you expect an effort like this one to make its way back into energy discussions in the Senate when they come up later this year?

Bob Dinneen: Look, I fully expect that the ethanol detractors are continuing to pick up every rock that they can to throw at this program. But I think that they will continue to fail. The fact of the matter is the renewable fuel standard has been an enormously successful program. It has done exactly what it was intended to do, including revitalizing rural America. You know, from 1996 to 2013 farmers were having to sell their crops below the cost of production. $2 corn was not sustainable. So one of the reasons for the RFS was to revitalize rural America, to give farmers a value-added market for their product. So from 2007 through 2013 farmers were getting value for their product. Farm program costs were dramatically reduced to the tune of billions of dollars a year, enabling Congress to write a farm bill last year that eliminated some of those farm programs. If we want to go back to paying farmers not to grow, then maybe the Congress wants to think about that. I think it makes more sense for farmers to get their revenue from the marketplace in a value-added program like this.

Monica Trauzzi: So over on the other side of the Hill there’s bipartisan legislation in the House that seeks to reform the RFS. One of the elements of that piece is to remove corn ethanol from RFS requirements. You and I have talked a lot on this show about the future of corn ethanol. At what point does the game shift from corn ethanol to advanced fuels?

Bob Dinneen: Well, it’s shifting today. In the last several months you’ve seen Poet-DSM have a grand opening for their cellulosic facility, Abengoa Bioenergy opening a commercial-scale facility in Kansas, Quad County Corn Processors — a corn ethanol plant today, but now using the cellulosic material coming into the plant to also produce a cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol is commercialized today, and it is — it’s growing. And if EPA would just implement the RFS as it’s intended, you’ll see further investment. You’ll see other technologies. DuPont is going to be opening up another cellulosic ethanol plant, commercial scale, in the next several months. So you see this occurring.

What’s critical, though, is you can’t eliminate corn ethanol from the RFS and believe that there’s going to be this growing market for cellulose. That’s not the way the market will work. There are too many synergies. It’s the existing industry today that is providing the foundation for which cellulosic ethanol can grow.

Monica Trauzzi: So what types of RFS reforms is the industry willing to engage on?

Bob Dinneen: We think the RFS has enough flexibility built into it that EPA has the ability to address some of the issues. I think, for example, EPA ought to do something to make sure that there’s more transparency in … market, but that’s something that the administration can do. We quite frankly don’t think Congress needs to improve what is already a very good program just because the oil industry would like to re-litigate the 2007 debate, which they lost. The value of the RFS is as critical today as it was then, no matter how much we’re fracking in North Dakota. You need to have renewable fuels as a part of our energy future.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, the debate continues. We’ll end it there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Bob Dinneen: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We’ll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]

Click here to watch today’s OnPoint.