Weak RFS will lead to massive emissions spike — trade group

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, December 6, 2013

U.S. EPA’s controversial proposed revisions to the federal renewable fuel standard (RFS) could pump up to 35 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the air from the transportation sector, according to a biotechnology trade group that will testify at a public hearing today.

Using estimates for next year’s fuel consumption and greenhouse gas models from EPA and Argonne National Laboratory, the trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) estimates that vehicles will contribute between 30 million and 35.5 million additional tons of CO2 next year if EPA does not support biofuel production at the original 2007 target.

“Setting the 2014 RFS volumes lower than the 2013 levels, as the administration proposes, will require using additional barrels of oil next year, adding millions of tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” said Paul Winters, a spokesman for BIO. “EPA’s proposal is a puzzling course change for achieving a cleaner environment and increased energy security.”

EPA scaled back the amount of biofuels that oil companies are required to blend into the fuel supply last month, from 2013’s 16.55 billion gallons to 15.21 billion gallons. This marks the first time EPA has reduced the overall amount of renewable fuel since the program was signed into law as part of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). In EISA, lawmakers agreed that EPA would mandate 18.15 billion gallons of biofuels for 2014.

Advanced biofuels, which achieve a high reduction in greenhouse gases when compared with fossil fuels, felt the most drastic cut — 2.2 billion gallons, instead of the 3.75 billion gallons ensured in EISA (ClimateWire, Nov. 18).

“We’re left scratching our heads and wondering why EPA would allow such a large blow to advanced biofuels,” said Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association.

BIO is one of many groups and individuals preparing statements for or against the RFS today, as EPA holds a public hearing in Arlington, Va. The RFS, the national program to build the country’s production of biofuels to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022, has been criticized on a number of fronts. Livestock producers say the policy, which promotes corn ethanol production, raises the price of animal feed. The automobile, boating and power tool industries have said it has led to higher-ethanol blends that destroy certain engines.

Missing: ‘the practical middle ground’

Petroleum trade associations claim they must pay high prices for Renewable Identification Numbers — credits that oil companies must buy to comply with the RFS — and pay fines for not blending cellulosic biofuels in the fuel supply. Cellulosics, fuels made from tough biodegradable matter like grasses, agricultural waste and household trash, are a promising technology, but the industry has struggled to produce meaningful amounts since the RFS was passed.

Many of these arguments, however, are unrelated to biofuels’ role as a tool for carbon mitigation. This, too, however, has been questioned by some scientists and policymakers who regard the greenhouse gas models used by EPA as faulty.

“The very foundations of [Argonne National Laboratory model] GREET and similar models just flatly got things wrong,” said John DeCicco, a professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute and the School of Natural Resources and Environment. The GREET model, which EPA uses in addition to its own, does not take into account important land-use changes, like the carbon sequestration potential of a farmer’s field for another crop, rather than corn for ethanol.

Because the land changes from using crops for fuel and using fossil energy for fuel are fundamentally different, framing biofuels as a measure of how much less carbon is emitted than if petroleum were used is like comparing apples to oranges, said DeCicco.

Jeremy Martin of the Union of Concerned Scientists varies in his view of biofuels as a low-carbon option. He believes these fuels, especially advanced biofuels from cellulosic material, algae, wood and other low-impact sources, can be a step toward climate mitigation.

But Martin, who is a senior scientist in UCS’s Clean Vehicles program, believes BIO’s claim is an overstatement. The trade group compares EPA’s proposal with what lawmakers thought would be possible six years ago. The 18.15-billion-gallon goal for 2014 is implausible, he said.

In order to really cut carbon using biofuels, EPA must focus on maintaining the RFS and slowly increase the volumes, which would create a secure investment environment for second-generation advanced fuels.

“The story many people are missing is the practical middle ground,” said Martin. That middle ground “recognizes the practical necessity of significantly slowing down the pace of RFS mandate growth, but also recognizes that the EPA proposal goes too far, and would seriously undermine investment needed to make progress on the long-term goals of the RFS.”