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Biofuel groups push for ‘strong’ ethanol mandate, citing climate and gas prices

Amid reports the EPA might scale back the ethanol mandate, biofuel groups said on Tuesday there was no U.S. path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions or lower prices at the fuel pump without homegrown ethanol. In testimony before Congress and in a letter to the White House, the trade groups called for “strong” RFS targets and speedy restoration of year-round sales of E15, a higher than traditional blend of ethanol and gasoline.

“Renewable fuels like ethanol remain the single most affordable and abundant source of low-carbon motor fuel on the planet – and are critical to meeting carbon reduction goals today,” said Emily Skor of trade group Growth Energy. “Recent research shows there is no path to net-zero emissions by 2050 without biofuels” because most vehicles will rely on liquid fuel, rather than battery power, for years to come.

At the same time Skor testifed before a House Agriculture subcommittee on the renewable economy in rural America, the Renewable Fuels Association released a letter to the White House that said more ethanol, not less, would hold down gasoline prices. Ethanol is cheaper than gasoline per gallon and it effectively stretches tight petroleum supplies.

Skor and RFA chief Geoff Cooper each called for the EPA to set the RFS at a “strong” level.

The EPA has yet to announce the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2021 or 2022, leaving the ethanol industry worried they might be facing a cut. Usually, the targets are proposed several months before the start of each year and finalized a few weeks before the new year. The pandemic has complicated the task of estimating fuel consumption for the nation and the share to be given to biofuels.

Fuel prices are sharply higher than a year ago, averaging $3.41 a gallon at the start of this week, up by $1.29 from this point in 2020 and 81¢ more than in 2019, before the pandemic, said the American Automobile Association.

“It is critical for ethanol producers and suppliers that EPA immediately propose 15 billion gallons of conventional biofuels for 2021 and 2022,” said Skor. “Congress must pass the Year-Round Fuel Choice Act from Rep. Cindy Axne to restore E15 summer sales.”

The EPA has the authority to adjust RFS targets from the levels set by Congress in a 2007 law, including 15 billion gallons a year for corn ethanol. A federal appeals court ruled this summer that the EPA overstepped its authority in approving year-round sales of E15 in 2019. Sales had been blocked during the summer to prevent air pollution.

Ethanol makers “will purchase nearly $30 billion worth of corn this year” to make the biofuel and co-products, said Skor in describing the importance of the industry. The industry has 210 refineries in 27 states with annual capacity of 17 billion gallons.

Also at the House hearing, private consultant Nan Stolzenburg said rural communities typically bristle at the arrival of solar farms, driven by the economic imperatives of their developers. “The lack of tangible benefits received by host communities, taxation issues, and growing resentment that these facilities are imposed on rural communities to benefit urban communities are also on the minds of many rural residents and local officials,” she said.

“Site selection gives little thought to the very features most highly valued in rural communities,” such as open space and rural character, said Stolzenburg in a critique that included wind and biofuel facilities. The reaction is “prohibitive local regulations, more rural/urban divisions and lost opportunities for farmers.” The solution would be a master plan to identify the best sites for renewable energy facilities and to preserve land for food production. “Do not put rural areas in the position of having to supply all renewable energy to urban and suburban areas.”

To watch a video of the House hearing, click here.

To read the written testimony of witnesses, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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