RFS supporters say biofuel is ‘nuanced’ issue

Source: By Gene Lucht, Iowa Farmer Today • Posted: Friday, June 17, 2016

It has been roughly a decade since Congress passed the Renewable Fuels Standard.

In that time, the RFS has gone from being popular to polarizing, from being a darling of the environmental movement to being maligned by some in that same community.

Even Iowa politicians who should know better have thrown out false lines about it, saying, for example, that the RFS expires in 2022. That’s not the case.

What happens in 2022 is that Congress stops setting annual levels of renewable fuel usage, but the actual law does not expire. It would take an act of Congress to make it go away, and so far, that isn’t happening.

While biofuels have occasionally stepped to center stage in this presidential election year, neither of the two likely major-party presidential nominees has come out against the RFS or against biofuels.

“Of about 16 candidates in Iowa early in the campaign, only two of them, both from Texas, did not support the RFS,” says Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington, D.C.

The two Texas Republicans, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz, dropped out of the race, and the public is left with two likely nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who are both on record as supporting the RFS.

Dinneen says there doesn’t appear to be any major push to dismantle or eliminate the RFS in Congress at the moment.

“Public support is still there,” he says. “Congressional support is still there.”

Of course, he adds, the oil companies will not rest on this issue, but there is strong, bi-partisan support for renewable fuels.

The discussion about an expiring RFS isn’t new, but it flared up this past winter when Iowa Congressman Steve King, who was campaigning for Texas Sen. Cruz, argued the RFS expires in 2022 and Congress would let that happen.

Biofuels industry leaders quickly spoke up at that time, reminding King and others the RFS does not actually expire.

In 2022, the levels Congress set stop going up and the EPA is tasked with setting annual levels for renewable fuel requirements, says Grant Kimberley, executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board. That is already how the RFS works for biodiesel.

That process is not perfect, Kimberley concedes, pointing toward disputes regarding those EPA-set levels, but it does keep in place the process and the idea of setting minimum levels of usage.

The Obama administration, which had previously been supportive of biofuels and the RFS, stepped in a couple of years ago and had the EPA alter Congressionally-set RFS levels for ethanol and advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol. That move is still being challenged in court.

Dinneen says it appears oral arguments in that court case are not likely to happen until 2017.

“It’s frustrating to us because we think the law is pretty straightforward here,” he says.

But that just illustrates the many challenges facing RFS supporters.

An EPA-led public hearing in Kansas City regarding the proposed 2017 renewable fuels target numbers was held last week, drawing many biofuel supporters. And others are busy talking to candidates this election season. The bottom line may well be there is support for the RFS, but it is not a black and white issue.

“I believe that it is modestly popular and that political views of the RFS are fairly nuanced,” says Tom Driscoll, director of conservation policy and education at the National Farmers Union.

Driscoll says even though the EPA has lowered targets for renewable fuels under the RFS, the Obama administration supports the idea of the RFS and the idea of minimum usage levels.

“I understand what the administration is doing,” he says. “They’re very wary of the price of gasoline.”

But he says the NFU and other farm organizations argue fully supporting the RFS would send a powerful message about the importance of renewable energy and conservation. He adds that he sees a future for the RFS.

“I would argue for optimism,” Driscoll says.