RFS Rule Undercuts U.S. Commitment to Reducing GHGs

It was with some ironic bemusement that biofuel advocates read the headlines from the mainstream media that said the Obama administration “raised’ the biofuel blending requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) rule announced this week by EPA.

Of course, the final blending levels were higher than first proposed by the agency back in May. But they still fall far short of what is called for in the statute that reauthorized and strengthened the RFS back in 2007.

And given Obama’s presence in Paris this week for UN climate change talks that have drawn together representatives from nearly 200 nations, the president has missed a huge opportunity to demonstrate fully a U.S. commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and curb climate change.

The final rule posted by EPA Monday reduces the total amount of biofuels that the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) said should be blended into the nation’s transportation fuel supply this year by nearly 18 percent, down to 19.93 billion gallons. The final RFS rule drops the statutorily required level of biofuels to be blended in 2016 even more sharply, by nearly 20 percent, a falloff to 18.1 billion.

Of particular concern are the reductions in requirements for conventional biofuels, which is mostly corn ethanol, from an EISA-required 15 billion gallons this year and next down to 14.05 billion gallons and 14.5 billion gallons, respectively. In a biofuels market that is only beginning to mature, the fall-offs in required ethanol are a huge setback. As has been voiced often and loudly by ethanol industry leaders, oil companies and refiners enjoy a huge competitive advantage in the marketplace with billions of dollars in federal tax subsidies and other benefits, dwarfing any help the ethanol sector has received. The RFS is virtually the only means for ethanol to access a marketplace that is almost monopolistically held by the petroleum industry.

Given that most of the major players in the biofuels sector and the oil industry expressed considerable frustration with the designated blending levels (the oil industry thought the levels proposed back in May were too high), there is a strong likelihood that lawsuits are coming.

But regardless of where the battle goes next, the reality is that the nation is missing an opportunity to accelerate the transition to cleaner, safer, more secure and lower carbon transportation fuels.

We are unsure why the president would not heed the counsel of his own national labs, which have well documented that petroleum fuels are getting dirtier while biofuels are getting cleaner. The DOE Argonne National Laboratory Argonne’s Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation (GREET) model gives researchers a way to evaluate the total GHG impacts of transportation fuels from their production to end use. Argonne’s latest version of GREET shows life cycle emissions for corn ethanol in the range of 63.5‒66.4 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule (a measurement of energy). Gasoline, meanwhile, comes in at 94 grams oc CO2 equivalent per megajoule. That’s at least a reduction of nearly 30 percent in emissions offered by ethanol compared to gasoline.

Oil industry arguments contending that the supply of gasoline in the United States is insufficient to meet the EISA-set blending levels for ethanol simply don’t hold up, given Americans are driving more in the first six months of this year than they have in eight years, setting a U.S. record.

Adding to the questions of why the White House is choosing not to meet the full blending requirements set by EIA is the fact that ethanol and biodiesel have helped reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil in recent years, playing a large part in the drop in oil imports of nearly one-third of that brought in five years ago. Why raise the possibility of reversing that trend?

And on the public health front, biofuels are increasingly recognized as a safer and less expensive source of octane compared to aromatics in petroleum gasoline.

EPA’s final RFS rule is a policy setback for ethanol interests. But multi-pronged efforts continue to boost the role of biofuels in our nation’s transportation fuel supply, some in the lab, some in state halls and still some in Washington. Policy makers at all levels must avail themselves of the rapidly growing scientific evidence around the GHG emission-reduction benefits and other advantages offered by biofuels and acknowledge that they are a smart choice for meeting clean energy targets.

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