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EPA rules ethanol green enough for fuel mandates

Agriculture.com Staff 02/03/2010 @ 4:33pm

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday released its final rule for putting the 2007 energy law into effect. The EPA announcement, timed with a White House push for more energy independence, makes it clear that both corn ethanol and soy-based biodiesel will lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to be in the fuel mix as the nation ramps up to using 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022.

The EPA's final rule for the Renewable Fuel Standard 2 (RFS2) found that ethanol's carbon footprint is at least 20% lower than gasoline, a requirement of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. And soy-biodiesel meets the requirement of being 50% greener than diesel fuel.

When the EPA put out its first draft of the rule last year, it showed that ethanol was only 16% greener than gasoline. That didn't matter for existing ethanol plants, which are exempt from the tougher greenhouse gas rules under the 2007 law, but it put expansion of corn ethanol beyond a 15 billion gallon mandate in the law in doubt. And it threatened to shut down an already struggling biodiesel industry, when the first draft showed that it was only 22% greener than oil-based diesel fuel. (Biodiesel is still struggling, due to the Senate allowing its tax credit to expire last year.)

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Wednesday that the new estimates are still based on science but that some of the data used in its first draft wasn't correct.

"We listened to public comments and we worked really closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Jackson told reporters.

The EPA didn't abandon an attempt to measure the so-called indirect land use change of biofuels. That's based on the theory that when corn and soybean plantings increase to produce more biofuels, tropical forests and savannahs will be destroyed to grow more crops, releasing so much carbon dioxide in the process that it offsets any savings from biofuels for decades.

Jackson cited several reasons for a the EPA's new stamp of approval for ethanol.

First, its early estimates of crop yields were too low. "The numbers we were using were not right," she said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, also on hand to meet with the press, added that his department's higher yield numbers reflect a rapidly changing science of crop production. "That is the science and it's a good thing we are as productive as we are," he said.

A second reason for a better corn ethanol footprint was a change in how the EPA credits co-products from making ethanol, Jackson said.

A third, was that when EPA looked at international land use, it considered changes in 160 countries, not the 40 countries used in its first model. That showed a smaller effect on international land use.

Maybe the most significant part of the new RFS2 rule is that it would allow corn ethanol to be counted in mandates for even higher levels of biofuel production beyond 15 billion gallons, as Jackson confirmed on Wednesday. But, she said, new ethanol plants will have to use natural gas and other fuels that don't put out a lot of carbon in order to qualify.

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