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EPA responds to vocal ethanol rating critic

The Environmental Protection Agency has responded to an Iowa senator who says it shouldn't be rating the carbon footprint of ethanol based on estimates of how farmers are planting virgin timber and grasslands in other nations.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) a long time advocate of ethanol production, repeated his criticism of the EPA's methods Tuesday.

"My feeling is that it doesn't meet the common-sense test because, first of all, there's no science behind it," Grassley told Agriculture Online during a conference call with reporters. "And we ought to -- EPA ought to only be making their decisions based on science. And then you get into the ridiculous situation that somewhere around the world somebody's waiting to plow up an acre of virgin soil just because they're waiting to see if Chuck Grassley sells a little more corn for ethanol. I think that's a ridiculous combination that doesn't face the real-world test."

Grassley was among a dozen senators from both parties who wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in March, urging her not to use the so-called indirect land use test when estimating how much greenhouse gas is put out when biofuels are made and burned. Under the 2007 energy law, the Energy Independence and Security Act, biofuels must put out less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, in order to qualify for a federal mandate that forces the oil industry to use them. Under the rules that EPA is writing this year, ethanol has to be 20% greener than gasoline and soybean-based biodiesel has to have a 50% smaller carbon footprint than diesel fuel. So far, the preliminary estimate of ethanol is that it averages only a 16% cut in greenhouse gases and biodiesel is only 22% better on average. This would cut out new ethanol plants and all biodiesel plants from mandates and tax credits, unless they're able to increase their energy efficiency enough to lower greenhouse gas output.

Grassley said Tuesday that in order to get a higher mandate for biofuel use, up to 36 billion gallons by 2022, the Senate had to agree to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's insistence that the indirect land use be part of calculating greenhouse gas output of biofuels. When land is cleared to produce more crops in other parts of the world, burning off timber or plowing grasslands also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Environmentalists argue that the carbon dioxide released offsets any benefits from biofuels for decades.

In a letter that Grassley received late last week, EPA's acting assistant administrator, Elizabeth Craig, said that the agency had no choice but to include indirect land use in its estimates of the carbon footprint of biofuels.

The law directs EPA to include several factors in its analysis, she said. "It provides that the 'aggregate quantity of greenhouse gas emissions'…includes ‘direct emissions’ and ‘significant indirect emissions.’ The statute specifically includes 'significant emissions from land use changes' within the concept of indirect emissions.

"Excluding indirect land use changes -- whether domestic or international -- from the analysis would depart from both the statutory text and from the scientific thrust of the requirement of lifecycle analysis," she added.

EPA consulted outside experts and other federal agencies before analyzing the emissions of biofuels, Craig said. And, in order to estimate how biofuels affect land use in other countries, it used an economic model developed by the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at Iowa State University and the University of Missouri. Congress uses FAPRI to compare the economic effects of different farm bill proposals.

"We believe that, together, these tools currently provide the most comprehensive, up-to-date, and scientifically supported approach to satisfying our statutory obligations," Craig said.

Grassley supports a bill, recently introduced by Senator John Thune (R-SD) that would take indirect land use out of EPA's analysis of biofuel carbon output. But he has acknowledged that changing the 2007 energy law would be difficult. It's bound to be opposed by members of Congress from California and the Northeast, where environmental groups are influential. And the oil industry, which doesn't like giving up market share to biofuels, will lobby against any changes to the law that favor ethanol and biodiesel.

For now, Grassley is betting on objections from scientists and experts over the way EPA has done its analysis.

"The next step is going on right now," he said Tuesday. "They put out a rule that they're asking for comment. And so you can write in, Dan Looker, Chuck Grassley can write in. I hope they get a myriad of comment that causes them to change their view, and they could."

The Environmental Protection Agency has responded to an Iowa senator who says it shouldn't be rating the carbon footprint of ethanol based on estimates of how farmers are planting virgin timber and grasslands in other nations.

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