EPA Slashes Cellulosic Biofuel Mandates. Again.

For the third consecutive year, the Environmental Protection Agency has drastically reduced cellulosic biofuel mandates, citing economic and technological hurdles. Even though industry officials consistently assure lawmakers and taxpayers that commercial production is “just around the corner,” EPA yesterday reduced the 2012 cellulosic mandate by ninety eight percent. The agency is “required to determine and publish the applicable annual renewable fuel percentage standards for each compliance year by November 30.”

The Renewable Fuel Standard, passed in 2005 and modified in the 2007 energy bill, calls for production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022. In practice, this standard does little or nothing to accomplish Congress’ primary objective to bring to market a new generation of so-called advanced biofuels to lessen America’s oil dependence without competing with food crops. Virtually all ethanol produced in the U.S. is refined from corn. Corn ethanol production, conceived as a temporary solution, continues to exceed the maximum production level set by the Renewable Fuel Standard mandate. It continues to pollute air and water quality and destroy wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile, production of cellulosic biofuels, derived from non-food and potentially more environmentally sustainable feedstocks like grasses, wood residues and recycled cooking oil, has fallen short year after year. EPA reduced the 2011 cellulosic biofuels mandate by a whopping 97 percent, from 250 million gallons to just 6.6 million gallons. In 2010, that mandate was revised downward by a similar margin of 93 percent – from 100 million gallons to 6.5 million gallons.

As the hope for a future of truly sustainable biofuels fades, King Corn has a firm grip on the US biofuel throne.

Several biofuels lobbyists claim that corn ethanol is simply a bridge to next generation biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol. But as we wrote in August, corn ethanol has always been about corn, corn and more corn. The corn lobby’s Corn Commentary blog squashed the notion that we will ever cross this fabled bridge. Its blog, which was abruptly taken down without explanation, described cellulosic biofuels as a “world that does not exist” and an “unrealistic expectation.”

Now these same lobbyists are trying to convince Congress to add corn ethanol to the definition of an advanced biofuel. Tom Buis, head of the ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy, recently told Agri-Pulse:

As far as corn ethanol being limited to just 15 billion gallons, I think that is a mistake. I think you ought to make anything feedstock neutral, whoever can produce it the cheapest…

Now at annual production of 14 billion gallons, corn ethanol has not lived up to its own promises. If the corn ethanol industry convinced Congress to allow corn ethanol to qualify as an advanced biofuel, the entire 36 billion gallon mandate could be filled with this environmentally destructive biofuel – a scenario that Congress never intentioned. A recent National Research Council report asserted that:

  1. Food-based biofuel put upward price pressure on agricultural commodities, food, and livestock feed.
  2. Corn ethanol actually uses more water in its production cycle than petroleum-based fuels.
  3. Production and use of ethanol as fuel instead of gasoline is likely to increase certain air pollutants.
  4. The increase in corn production has contributed to dead zones, algae spread.
  5. Agricultural soil erosion and fertilizer runoff are polluting water.

Aside from corn ethanol, the report also found that:

  1. Unless there are major technological innovation or policy changes, cellulosic biofuel mandates won’t be met in 2022.
  2. The Renewable Fuel Standard may be ineffective for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  3. More cropland will likely be needed for cellulosic feedstock production, raising land prices and increasing food and feed production costs.

To ensure that the U.S. does not make the same mistakes with cellulosic biofuels that were made with corn ethanol, Congress must add stringent environmental safeguards to the Renewable Fuel Standard. Government agencies should target research and development funds at truly sustainable biofuels that do not compete with food or feed supplies, are compatible with existing fueling infrastructure, conserve soil and water and actually reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Finally, EPA and Congress must resist all attempts to reclassify environmentally damaging corn ethanol as an “advanced biofuel.”

For more information about the RFS biofuels mandate, view this Congressional Research Service (CRS) report (pdf).

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