What a Biden EPA means for the renewable fuel standard

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 7, 2020

Fuel refiners will still blend billions of gallons of corn-based ethanol into gasoline with President-elect Joe Biden in the White House — but the conversation may turn to alternative fuels.

That’s the scenario people who work for, or against, biofuel mandates see for the federal renewable fuel standard during the incoming administration.

The RFS will probably evolve much differently under a Biden administration than it would have had President Trump won reelection, particularly given the leanings of the widely reported candidates for EPA administrator.

“Obviously, the RFS is in a big mess right now,” said Jeremy Martin, director of fuels policy and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which urges a move toward fuels that more aggressively reduce atmospheric carbon. “It needs to look different. It’s a mass of waivers and unresolved court disputes.”

Critics who want to see the RFS repealed, including big petroleum companies and their allies in Congress, won’t see their wish come true under the Biden administration, both sides agree. But measures like a low-carbon fuel standard could push biofuels toward a more market-oriented approach and encourage types of biofuel — like ethanol made with crop residue instead of corn — that haven’t taken off like the law’s sponsors hoped in the mid-2000s.

By the same token, the ethanol industry and its advocates in the Capitol may have a harder time defending the RFS as it’s currently written.

And EPA is poised to gain more influence: Unless lawmakers rewrite the RFS law, congressionally set biofuel volumes will expire in 2022, leaving EPA to decide how much to require each year. The law requires a minimum of 15 billion gallons a year of conventional biofuel through 2022.

In his campaign, Biden said he favored a gradual transition away from fossil fuels. On the RFS, he criticized the Trump administration for granting biofuel-blending exemptions to small refineries.

The reported top contender for the EPA job, Mary Nichols, could give a big boost to a low-carbon fuel standard, having implemented such a system on the state level as head of the California Air Resources Board.

Biofuels advocates have considered the ramifications of Nichols as EPA administrator before, during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. Then, the Clinton campaign talked with Nichols about a low-carbon fuel standard and faced a backlash from biofuel advocates who feared she meant to abolish the RFS (her campaign said she didn’t).

Ethanol industry groups have challenged aspects of California’s system (Greenwire, Jan. 21, 2019). But they also point to the Air Resources Board’s findings that ethanol use reduced greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 20.9 million metric tons from 2011 to 2018. And the carbon standard doesn’t dictate which fuels are to be used, making a good choice of low-carbon ethanol that’s widely available, the Renewable Fuels Association has said (E&E News PM, Feb. 6, 2019).

If put in place along with the RFS, a low-carbon standard “would be incredibly powerful and effective in driving accelerated decarbonization of our transportation sector,” RFA President and CEO Geoff Cooper told E&E News in a statement.

Another potential Biden nominee, Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, has testified on Capitol Hill about the RFS. While his organization hasn’t called for repealing the RFS, NWF has said the program should be restructured to encourage feedstocks other than corn — citing evidence that farmers have converted wildlife habitat like grassland into cornfields to meet biofuel requirements.

O’Mara is also a partner in Rethink Ethanol, a nonprofit group critical of government mandates that have increased the alternative fuel’s use.

“For more than a decade, the stagnation of the advanced biofuel industry has not been met with any meaningful revisions to the program,” O’Mara told a House subcommittee in June 2018. “The statute has seen no revision over this time, and the administration of the program has been beset by legal squabbling and political infighting.”

Biofuels, O’Mara said, can be a bridge until electric vehicles take hold, and could remain an important part of aviation fuel, for instance.

“We believe the country must move to electric vehicles powered by renewable sources such as wind and solar,” O’Mara said.

He added, “The true value in developing cleaner biofuel alternatives is to make an immediate improvement in the transport fuel profile as that transition happens, while developing the alternative biofuels that will power aviation and long-range shipping, which cannot be electrified easily with current technology.”

Martin, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said EPA could make climate-friendly changes to the RFS in the short term by encouraging alternative feedstocks and embracing new technology in making corn ethanol. The environmental agency hasn’t taken action on many applications for alternative feedstocks, and a new administrator could speed that process, he said.

Those alternatives could help reduce emissions but were “put on ice by EPA’s current leadership,” said the RFA’s Cooper.

Addressing the backlog wouldn’t need new legislation. But a low-carbon fuel standard will require congressional action, and the ability to pass legislation in the next Congress is untested, Martin said. “I think we have a lot of work to do, but I’m optimistic,” he said.

Biofuel groups are pushing for any new fuel standard to work in tandem with the RFS, not replace it. Few were willing to publicly discuss specific candidates for EPA administrator, citing policies within their organizations against doing so.

But some said they don’t see a low-carbon fuel standard as an assault on biofuel, depending how it’s implemented.

“We believe that any additional low carbon program must build on, not replace, the RFS,” said Leigh Claffey, a spokesperson for the Growth Energy, an ethanol trade group.

She said Growth Energy looks forward to “identifying ways to decarbonize our nation’s existing transportation fleet, replace toxic pollutants in gasoline, and support family farms and jobs to help rural communities.”

The debate over biofuels’ carbon impacts will frame the conversation at EPA.

The RFA, representing biofuel interests, said a study it commissioned last year revealed that conventional ethanol made mainly from corn reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 43% compared with petroleum.

But the Government Accountability Office said last year that the RFS hasn’t met its emissions reduction goals and isn’t likely to do so through 2022 because advanced biofuels haven’t been produced as much as lawmakers envisioned.

Whoever takes the helm at EPA will have to confront the reality that the renewable fuels industry has changed since the RFS in its current form took effect, in 2007, said Jonathan Lewis, senior counsel at the Clean Air Task Force in Boston.

When the RFS began, its creators saw biofuel as a cleaner alternative to gasoline and diesel.

“In 2020, we know we need to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions,” Lewis said. “We’re in a different place.”