Given the commitment the Obama administration has long shown to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reversing the changes they are making on our climate, the White House’s deaf ear when it comes to sustaining the development of renewable fuels as called for in legislation first adopted 10 years ago remains a baffling mystery.
The evidence demonstrating the environmental setbacks that would come with the lower biofuel blending requirements proposed by EPA under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is mounting. Yet the administration has given no indication it will reverse the missteps that loom if the lower blending proposals are finalized later this year.
EPA wrapped in late July a 60-day public comment period on revised renewable volume obligations (RVOs), which determine the amount of ethanol blended in gasoline. As proposed, a total of 17.5 billion gallons of biofuels would be blended with gasoline by 2016, 3.75 billion fewer gallons than called for when Congress reauthorized the RFS under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA).
Yet, a recent University of Illinois at Chicago analysis finds that lower RVOs under the RFS could mean putting the equivalent of one million more passenger cars on the road in the United States. Prepared by the UIC Energy Resources Center, the analysis is based on peer-reviewed research and the long-accepted Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation (GREET) model developed by Argonne National Laboratory, which examines the full life cycle emissions impacts of energy sources.
As part of the analysis, carbon emissions related to the planting, growing, harvesting, transportation and production of corn into ethanol were compared to that of oil recovery and production. The work demonstrates that over the last 10 years, steady reductions in GHG emissions have materialized as biofuels became a more efficient, high quality product.
But under EPA’s proposed rules, conventional starch ethanol would likely be reduced to 13.4 billion gallons from the 15 billion gallons required by EISA in 2015. Under that scenario, the analysis found that nearly 5 million tons of additional CO2 emissions would be incurred in 2015. That’s the equivalent to the annual GHG emissions of 951,600 passenger vehicles.
A more recent analysis released by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) shows that over the past decade, the RFS has reduced U.S. transportation-related carbon emissions by nearly 590 million metric tons, not to mention displacing nearly 1.9 billion barrels of foreign oil.
BIO officials rightfully point out that the purpose of the RFS when it was first signed into law ten years ago President George W. Bush was to end America’s addiction to oil, reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil and lower carbon emissions. The RFS has achieved those goals, with the total reduction in carbon emissions achieved under the program being equal to removing more than 124 million cars from the road over the decade.
The environmental impacts of lowering the RFS blending requirements are patently obvious. But it’s important to mention the economic impact of the EPA proposals. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the production of 14.3 billion gallons of ethanol in 2014 supported nearly 84,000 stable, well-paid jobs in the renewable fuel and agriculture industries in the United States, as well as 295,000 indirect and induced jobs across all sectors of the economy. And based on the most recent figures, rural counties with ethanol plants can attribute 32-percent of county-wide employment growth from the development and operation of the ethanol biorefinery.
Farm income 2015 is already forecast to drop by 36 percent compared to last year, and is expected to be down to its lowest level in nine years. Furthermore, federal farm payments this year will quadruple compared to 2014. There is little sense in adding to that fire by lowering biofuel blending requirements and putting an economic hit on farmers who grow the biofuel feedstocks, their local businesses and the rural communities in which they live.
EPA officials have contended that the blending requirements have to be lowered because the fuel market has been constrained too much to accommodate increasing volumes of biofuels. That argument totally ignores the fact that a wide variety of blended fuels, from the traditional E10 (10 percent ethanol) up to E15, E30 and E85, are becoming even more available to consumers, easing any pressure on gasoline supplies. Those higher blends could be produced in even greater numbers – easing any alleged “blend wall” – if the administration sustains the RFS as it was designed.
EPA must abandon its flawed methodology for setting biofuel blending requirements and follow the congressionally established levels. The White House should reinforce its efforts to reverse climate change and avoid the environmental and economic consequences that will come with lower blending targets.