The annual battle for renewables

Source: By Bob Dinneen, The Hill • Posted: Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ethanol is now blended into 97% of the U.S. gasoline supply, helping to slash dependence on foreign oil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save consumers at the pump. But EPA’s recently announced proposed targets for the inclusion of biofuels in America’s energy mix next year falls short of the statutory levels set by Congress. EPA’s proposal, if finalized, would needlessly undermine the economic, environmental and energy security benefits of America’s most successful clean energy program.

Let’s hope lawmakers are paying attention, because the debate pits fuel consumers, farmers, scientists, workers, environmentalists, and security hawks against the full spectrum of oil industry advocates for the status quo. From an objective standpoint, the choice should be simple – more clean, American energy and less foreign oil.
But politics are never simple when money is at stake, and both the EPA and some in Congress have a habit of ignoring energy security whenever oil prices take a temporary dip.
It’s worth recalling why a bipartisan coalition of policymakers, including President George W. Bush, worked together in 2007 to expand the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which requires oil companies to make increasing amounts of biofuel available to consumers as part of America’s fuel mix. The plan was simple: protect America’s homegrown energy sector from manipulation by oil producers and foreign cartels, then watch it grow. And it has. In 2015, the production of 14.7 billion gallons of ethanol supported 85,967 direct jobs in renewable fuel production and agriculture, as well as 271,440 indirect and induced jobs across all sectors of the economy. Not surprisingly, five of the top 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates also rank in the top 10 ethanol-producing states.

Meantime, net petroleum import dependence fell to just 25 percent in 2015, and would have been 32 percent without the addition of domestically produced ethanol to the fuel supply.  Ethanol helped to reduce gasoline prices by as much as $.50 to $1.50 a gallon when prices last peaked.

The more we utilize home-grown alternatives, the less consumers have to fear the next bit of news about unrest in the Middle East or surging energy demand in Asia. Just as important, it means fewer American dollars finding their way into the hands of hostile forces overseas.

With continuing support, those benefits are set to grow dramatically in the next few years, as second-generation biofuels become more common. But investments in this high-tech sector are drawn to stable policy commitments, and we’re in a race with countries like Brazil and China that are ramping up efforts to fight pollution by replacing gasoline with clean-burning ethanol. According to Argonne National Lab, the average gallon of corn ethanol reduces CO2 emissions by 34 percent, but production facilities coming online now will produce cellulosic biofuels that can slash emissions by 100 percent or more over gasoline.

Both types of biofuel are important, and with the transportation sector contributing a quarter of all human-made carbon dioxide emissions, there’s no question that America cannot meet its commitment to fighting climate change without them.

Most policymakers understand these facts. It’s one of the few federal policies that can claim support from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Yet, faced with an opportunity to set aggressive targets for biofuel blends, the EPA holds back, citing oil industry concerns about offering consumers any ethanol blend higher than 10 percent. The truth is that the EPA has approved 15 percent blends (E15) for use in more than 80 percent of cars on the road today – model years 2001 and later — and most automakers now explicitly warranty E15 for use in new models. The time is right to move forward, not backward.

Consumers increasingly understand that having only one choice at the pump – fossil fuels – is a vestige of outdated thinking and poor policy decisions. It’s time to call on the administration to fight for our environment, our economy, and our energy security. With luck, and strong support from policymakers and the public, it’s a battle they can win.

Bob Dinneen is president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA).