California Plan Scares Supporters of Ethanol
Argus Leader, Peter Harriman
Published April 19, 2009
A California environmental agency this week will consider a controversial new way to evaluate the carbon footprint of biofuels.
At stake for the ethanol industry is continued unencumbered access to the state that uses the most motor fuel in the country, and the prospect that other states could follow California’s lead.
Ethanol industry leaders fear the proposed Low Carbon Fuel Standard stacks the deck against corn-based ethanol. Some scientists are concerned that attempts to project the effect of growing corn for ethanol around the world exceeds the ability of science to measure such changes. South Dakotans are coming down on both sides of the issue.
The California Air Resources Board will hold a public hearing Thursday and Friday on the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. It could be adopted by June, according to Dimitri Stanich, CARB spokes-man. If so, it will take effect in January 2010.
Fuels deemed to have low “carbon intensity” in their life cycle – from the well to the vehicle in the case of petroleum and from the field to the vehicle in the case of biofuels – earn credits toward a required 10 percent reduction in carbon intensity by 2020. Those with high carbon intensity will be penalized.
In 2006, the California Legislature committed the state to reducing greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide to fight global warming. The proposal is a product of that decision.
Of chief concern to ethanol proponents is the proposal’s effort to measure not only the direct release of carbon into the atmosphere from the production, transportation and use of motor fuels but indirect land-use changes resulting from biofuels production.
Indirect effects of ethanol vs. oil
If Midwest farmers shift crop acres from soybeans to corn for ethanol, the argument goes, that creates opportunities for farmers in, say, Brazil to grow more soybeans. If they clear forest or plow up grasslands that tie up carbon, the release of that carbon should be counted against ethanol’s carbon score.
“What’s even more outrageous is CARB is trying to tag biofuels for indirect effects, but it’s not looking at the indirect effects of petroleum,” says Brian Jennings, executive director of the American Coalition for Ethanol.
“There’s a policy bias against biofuels. We just don’t even comprehend it.”
Bill Chase, South Dakota Corn Growers Association president, in a letter to CARB writes: “To say that there are not indirect effects of the usage of petroleum in defending transportation routes for petroleum fuel is ignoring what is happening now. All fuels should be treated equally in any adoption of indirect effects.”
David Fremark, president of the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council, said the Low Carbon Fuel Standard is fundamentally flawed for trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “on the backs of the biofuels industry alone … in fact, all economic activity generates GHG emissions.”
Tom Buis, chief executive of the ethanol promotions group Growth Energy, and a former policy aide for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, also points out the huge U.S. military presence in the petroleum-rich Middle East and the forest destruction accompanying recovery of petroleum from Canadian tar sands deposits should count against petroleum’s indirect carbon score if land-use changes count against ethanol’s.
Hyperion foes back California proposal
California’s ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gases and to comprehensively track the amount of carbon released by motor fuels is widely being heralded by environmental groups. Among them is Save Union County, formed to fight the proposed Hyperion oil refinery near Elk Point. Save Union County joined about 30 environmental and public health organizations in a letter to CARB supporting the fuel standard.
Ed Cable of Save Union County said in doing research to oppose Hyperion, members of the group became aware of the overall carbon footprint of all energy development.
He said he thinks there is opportunity to negotiate how the Low Carbon Fuel Standard is applied, and biofuels ultimately will be compared favorably with fossil fuels.
“There are some renewable fuels groups who do not fully understand the implications of it yet,” Cable said.
“Once everyone gets to learn the details, we think we can all be on the same page.”
California could influence EPA action
California’s actions with a low carbon fuel standard are being closely watched. Whatever California does could influence the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s own attempts to deal with carbon in rules it is establishing for the renewable fuels standard, according to Craig Cox, Midwest vice president of the Environmental Working Group in Ames, Iowa.
The Renewable Fuels Standard, adopted in 2005 and amended in 2007 as an amendment to the Clean Air Act, requires the EPA to set a minimum amount of renewable fuels that must be in the nation’s motor fuel supply every year.
“A lot of people who are concerned about what the RFS includes have been looking closely at what California did,” Cox says. “It’s using a different model than the EPA. In that sense, just the technical piece, people are looking at the California approach and comparing it in detailed ways to what the EPA is doing.”
Stanich of the California Air Resources Board said besides the EPA, “the northeastern states are very interested and are closely watching this process. They are considering adopting similar regulations.
“We’re getting attention from around the world as well. This will be a new paradigm in the approach for reducing emissions from transportation fuel.”
Which is all well and good, Buis said, as long as evaluating the carbon footprint of fuels doesn’t get ahead of science, and as long as it is applied fairly to biofuels and petroleum.
“In theory, a low carbon fuel standard makes a lot of sense,” he says. “It’s how you do it, and doing it equitably that makes the most sense.”