As the clock winds down and the Nov. 30 deadline EPA has set to issue its Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) rule approaches, stakeholders on both sides of the issue are maintaining full-court pressure on the White House to take what they deem, respectively, to be the best action. And despite million-dollar ad campaigns coming from both the oil industry and the renewable fuel sector, the decision should be based on what is needed to ensure a strong, affordable transportation fuel supply that poses the lowest possible amount of health-endangering carbon emissions.
The release of the rule will likely be followed by a lawsuit. Any biofuel blending requirement set in the standard will be challenged in court by an oil industry that wants to kill or, at the very least, severely weaken the RFS so the sector can maintain a virtual monopoly in the transportation fuel market. Renewable fuel interests will sue if the rule does not set the biofuel blending requirements at levels called for in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) that strengthened the standard.
The evidence supporting the role of biofuels in reducing carbon emissions – a role seen as a principal reason behind a broad, bipartisan majority in Congress renewing the RFS eight years ago – makes the biofuel industry’s position a better bet in a legal challenge. Congressional intent is a potent element in any discourse on the role of legislation, particularly a program aimed at offering environmental benefits while reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
And that evidence of the emission-reducing benefits of biofuels continues to grow, with the latest underscored by Steffen Mueller, principal economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago Energy Resources Center. Mueller looked at the latest version of the GREET emissions model released in September by researchers at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, which shows lifecycle emissions for corn ethanol are more than 30 percent less than those for gasoline.
(GREET, which is Argonne’s Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation model, gives researchers a way to evaluate the total greenhouse gas emission impacts of transportation fuels from their production to end use. It is the dominant model used in the United States for emissions assessments along a fuel’s full production lifecycle, including emissions from feedstock production, conversion and combustion in the vehicle.)
The latest version of GREET builds and improves on earlier models that have consistently shown ethanol produced from corn grain and corn stover provides substantial greenhouse gas benefits over gasoline.
Mueller says the latest version benefits from updated soil carbon modeling results that provide more refined predictions of carbon stock changes from biofuels production, as well as updated economic models that show reduced land area requirements for corn ethanol production.
Greenhouse gas assessments from lifecycle models generally count emissions in terms of their carbon dioxide equivalent (gCO2e) emitted per mega joule (MJ, a unit of energy) of fuel produced. That allows a consistent comparison – apples to apples ‑ across various biofuel pathways, regardless of differing heating contents.
As a result, Argonne’s latest version of GREET shows life cycle emissions for corn ethanol in the range of 63.5‒66.4 gCO2e/MJ, while gasoline emissions run at 94 gCO2e/MJ.
Mueller points out that over the last several years corn stover (cobs and stalks) has seen a tremendous increase in use as animal feed or for cellulosic ethanol production and lifecycle methodologies have been refined to reflect the trend. The latest data shows that ethanol produced at a combined grain and stover ethanol plant emits life cycle emissions of 50 gCO2e/MJ. In a further refinement GREET shows that this ethanol produced on acres with cover crops will produce emissions of 48 gCO2e/MJ, a 50-percent reduction over gasoline.
Given the Obama administration’s intense focus on reversing climate change and reducing emissions, the findings by Argonne and a plethora of other studies done in recent years with similar results show the White House should be fully embracing ethanol and other biofuels that have even greater emission-reducing benefits. While litigation may be unavoidable, the administration would be better served in court if it took a position that not only adhered to the intent of Congress, but also to the president’s own intent to fight the emissions that are impacting the planet.