EPA OIG Plans to Look at RFS Lifecycle Impacts Should Be Good for Biofuels

The announcement by EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) that it will begin preliminary research on lifecycle impacts of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) should be good news for the biofuels industry, providing the agency’s investigators be fair and give appropriate weight to some of the most recent scientific findings.

The timing of the announcement is a bit odd: EPA has long said that it will finalize the biofuel blending requirements under the RFS through next year by the end of next month. The proposed blending levels under the agency’s consideration are significantly lower than those called for when Congress reauthorized the RFS back in 2007 and reaffirmed its intent to reduce the nation’s dependence on oil and improve its air quality.

And it comes after years of efforts by oil industry allies to either weaken the RFS or eliminate it completely.

Specifically, EPA’s internal watchdog agency says it will determine whether the agency 1) complied with the reporting requirements of laws authorizing the RFS, including the 2005 Energy Act and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 EISA); and 2) updated the lifecycle analysis supporting the RFS with findings from the statutorily mandated National Academy of Sciences 2011 study on biofuels, the EPA’s 2011 Report to Congress on the Environmental Impacts of Biofuels, as well as any subsequent reports or relevant research on lifecycle impacts of biofuels.

The emphasis on the last clause is ours. It is a critical element of any OIG investigation if the agency intends to do its work devoid of political influence from those powerful interests seeking to strip the RFS of any real authority.

The concern is a valid one, given what appears to be the White House’s failure to take an active role in promoting biofuels as a weapon in its campaign to bring about a reduction in climate-changing carbon emissions. The EPA’s proposal to reduce biofuel blending requirements from a statutorily set 20.5 billion gallons down 16.3 billion gallons this year (corn ethanol would be set at 13.4 billion of that total, down from 15 billion called for by the law) indicates the White House is bending to pressure from an oil industry desperately trying to hold on to a near monopolistic share of the transportation fuel market.

Both the 2011 report on biofuels from the National Academy of Science and EPA’s 2011 Report to Congress on the Environmental Impacts of Biofuels are, at best, varied within their respective messages. The former says “the extent to which [the RFGS] contributes to lowering global GHG emissions is uncertain,” while EPA offers to Congress in the latter a lukewarm assessment stating that “the extent of negative impacts [from the RFS] to date are limited in magnitude” and “are primarily associated with the intensification of corn production.”

Fortunately, EPA’s OIG has available to them much more in the way of current findings that show the lifecycle of biofuels far exceed the requirements of EISA that corn ethanol have at least 20 percent fewer emissions than gasoline and that cellulosic and other advanced biofuels emit at least 50 percent fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than petroleum-based fuels.

A 2012 analysis done by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory showed corn ethanol offered anywhere from 20 percent to 48 percent fewer emissions when compared to gasoline, while biofuels derived from corn stover, switchgrass and miscanthus offer at or more than 100-percent reductions when matched against their petroleum-based equivalents. Other studies reaffirming the environmental benefits of ethanol and advanced biofuels have since come from Purdue University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, LifeCycle Associates LLC, Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Duke University, and Michigan State University, among others.

Bogus assertions from the oil industry to the contrary, biofuels’ environmental benefits are significant and, based on the evidence for maintaining statutorily mandated biofuel blending levels under the RFS, clearly demonstrable. We sincerely believe that if EPA’s OIG does the job it says it’s going to do – “ensure public health and the environment are protected” ‑ and looks at the broad array of recent analyses, biofuels will be given the place they deserve in this nation’s efforts to reverse the changes that are impacting our climate.

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