Despite Policy Setbacks, Role of Ethanol in Reducing GHGs Must Be Acknowledged

The beauty of biofuels is their ability to offer a limitless and inexpensive alternative to the fossil fuels that are, in fact, finite and subject to wildly fluctuating market demands. And you get a great weapon in the fight against climate change, given the big reductions in carbon emissions they offer.

And yet, like the debate over climate change itself, there remains a resistance to the science that offers clear proof of the obvious. Despite a number of studies, including several significant ones over the past two years, regulators at the federal and state level are failing to see the major benefits biofuels – and particularly ethanol – can provide in improving air quality.

What appears to potentially be the capitulation of the Obama administration to oil industry pressure that is allowing the White House and EPA to even consider a proposal to reduce biofuel blending requirements through next year under the Renewable Fuel Standard has been well documented here and elsewhere.

But now two regulatory bodies at the state level have issued rules that also fail to take into consideration the wide body of evidence presented by studies from Iowa State University, Purdue University, University of Illinois, ‑ even DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory – which rebut contentions made that will ultimately penalize ethanol when the states fully implement Low Carbon Fuel Standards (LCFS).

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) last week relaunched its LCFS (it had been on hold for two years due to legal issues), which has the admirable goal of reducing transportation fuel emissions by 10 percent by 2020. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality earlier this month proposed a Clean Fuels Program aimed at reducing carbon emissions by 10 percent in 10 years, beginning Jan. 1, 2016.

In both cases, the states’ regulators took indirect land use (ILUC) into consideration when calculating the reduction in carbon emissions offered by ethanol. ILUC is a much disputed contention that more emissions are created by converting non-cropland into cropland to compensate for cropland being used to grow biofuel feedstocks.

But the recent studies show that ILUC is a highly questionable factor that, when used, reduces the calculated benefits available from ethanol’s ability to cut emissions. The studies solidify the finding that ethanol’s carbon intensity (amount of emissions per unit of energy) is at least 33 percent lower than gasoline’s. Yet by including ILUC in their considerations, the regulatory bodies incorrectly say ethanol’s carbon intensity is but 20 percent less than gasoline.

When considering another multi-university study released this summer that shows ethanol, along with other lower carbon fuels, has reduced carbon emissions from the U.S. transportation sector over the past decade by nearly 590 million metric tons, or the equivalent of removing more than 124 million cars from the road, the difference between the benefits California and Oregon regulators think ethanol offers is much less than what science says it can provide.

Given the pursuit by both federal and state regulators of gasoline with higher octane ratings that burn more cleanly, it is sadly ironic that the blending of greater amounts of ethanol into the gasoline supply, which raises the fuel’s octane level, is not more readily recognized by policy makers as a viable approach to their goal.

25x’25 is currently working as part of an ag-auto-ethanol work group that, as the name implies, is made up agriculture interests, auto manufacturers and supply chain members intent on helping federal regulators understand the advantages higher ethanol-blend gasoline, ranging from 25 percent ethanol (E25) to E85, can provide in raising octane ratings, making gasoline burn cleaner and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

So while ethanol interests have faced some policy setbacks in recent weeks and months, multi-pronged efforts continue to boost the role of biofuels in our nation’s transportation fuel supply. We call on policy makers at all levels to examine the rapidly growing scientific evidence around the GHG emission-reduction benefits of biofuels and acknowledge that they are a smart choice for meeting clean energy targets.

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