White House Needs Political Courage to Support RFS Targets, Climate Goals

DOE late last week issued its second Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR), which department officials say examines the current status of clean energy technologies and identifies hundreds of clean energy research opportunities.

One of the more significant themes coming out of the review is that the range of options available to meet the nation’s energy needs – including those from renewable sources ‑ is increasing, and the diversity those options offers a more dependable energy system, while offering consumers new choices.

So while the Obama administration would use the review to underscore the dependability and consumer choice available through renewable energy, it remains baffling why the White House would still have under consideration biofuel blending requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) through 2016 far lower than the targets set by the legislation reauthorizing the RFS back in 2007.

Biofuels are a renewable energy resource that have fully demonstrated their contribution to a balanced transportation fuel market and provided alternatives for drivers at the pump. Furthermore, they reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; boost local, regional and national economies; create jobs; and improve our national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil that often costs the United States money and lives to defend.

Both EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack tried to assure ethanol manufacturers at a Growth Energy conference this week that the administration remains committed to biofuels. But those assurances seem shaky when it’s considered that the White House would seemingly run contrary to its longstanding efforts to address climate change by cutting back on an energy source that emits far fewer GHGs than petroleum-based gasoline or diesel fuel.

Neither McCarthy nor Vilsack gave any hints as to what the RFS blending requirements will look like when EPA issues the final program rule by Nov. 30. But McCarthy did say EPA is “working hard” to make sure the program is “moving forward to the levels that Congress intended.” That is phrasing that does not indicate EPA will keep the blending levels currently under consideration by the agency for 2014, this year and next year at those statutory levels.

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).

It would appear that the White House is giving in to pressure being applied by the oil industry, which claims not enough gasoline is being sold to accommodate the biofuel blending levels set by the RFS –the so-called “blend wall.” But the latest data shows Americans are driving more than ever and the oil industry’s argument appears to be little more than a thinly veiled defense of its efforts to maintain an almost monopolistic control of the transportation fuel market, regardless of the environmental consequences.

While EPA officials seem to adhere to the blend wall argument, it’s a position that 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.

As stated by DOE in releasing its quadrennial review, by pursuing research and development opportunities, as well as the untapped opportunities for greater energy efficiency highlighted in the review, the United States can move closer to its clean energy future.

But when it comes to biofuels and their contribution to the U.S. energy strategy, research is less needed than the political courage to stay the course on the RFS blending requirements as a bipartisan Congress envisioned eight years ago. The administration must avoid the missteps that loom if the lower blending proposals are finalized later this year.

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