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EPA hearing draws biofuel supporters, foes

If farmers who support biofuels had any doubts that the industry faces strong critics and opponents, they were dispelled Tuesday when the Environmental Protection Agency held a hearing in Washington on its proposed rule for enforcing the Renewable Fuel Standard in the 2007 energy bill.

About 60 people, roughly split between fuel industry "stakeholders" and environmentalists, came to support, oppose or alter the rule, which attempts for the first time at the federal level to regulate fuels based on their output of global warming greenhouse gases. The EPA's first draft of the rule, published in early May, has the effect of making much of the nation's biodiesel industry ineligible for renewable fuel mandates, as well as many new corn-based ethanol plants. That's because the rule includes estimates of indirect land use changes in other countries caused by planting corn and soybeans in the U.S. for biofuels.

Environmentalists don't want to encourage conventional ethanol production, which some groups see as inefficient and already too heavily subsidized by the federal government. Many favor moving the nation quickly to cellulosic ethanol made from perennial crops like switchgrass.

Richard Ball, a retired energy analyst who worked for the EPA and Department of Energy who is a member of the Virginia Sierra Club said he applauds the EPA’s use of indirect land use change in the EPA's estimates of the carbon footprints of biofuels.

"We strongly urge you to include those to the maximum extent feasible in your analysis," Ball said of the EPA's estimates of indirect land use.

Michael O'Hare, a professor of public policy from the University of California-Berkeley, said that the EPA's analysis of indirect land use actually underestimates the damage from using food crops for fuels. That's because the carbon dioxide that's released into the atmosphere from burning tropical forests sticks around for years and contributes to global warming as soon as the land is cleared. The benefits from substituting greener fuels like ethanol or biodiesel, take decades to offset those emissions from burning forests.

"EPA is making food-competitive biofuels look better than they really are," O'Hare said.

Several members of the existing biofuels industry made the case that cellulosic ethanol is still years away from being profitable and that it depends on keeping first generation biofuel plants in business.

But if there's a shortage of advanced biofuels to meet renewable fuel standard mandates in the future, Sarah Jones, an analyst with the Environmental Working Group, urged the EPA "not to fill the deficit with corn ethanol."

Many speakers from agriculture and biofuel plants, argued that the EPA's estimates of the effects of ethanol and biodiesel on land use in other countries seems to ignore other factors.

If farmers who support biofuels had any doubts that the industry faces strong critics and opponents, they were dispelled Tuesday when the Environmental Protection Agency held a hearing in Washington on its proposed rule for enforcing the Renewable Fuel Standard in the 2007 energy bill.

When asked about the effect of biodiesel on soybean prices, Corning, Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser, who spoke for the American Soybean Association, said that he thought demand for better diets in China and India is the biggest factor.

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