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To reduce carbon emissions, use more ethanol, says biofuel group

The EPA should rewrite the Renewable Fuel Standard to give corn ethanol a larger share of the gasoline market in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks quickly, said the head of the Renewable Fuels Association on Tuesday. “As the only existing federal law on the books today that requires the use of lower-carbon renewable fuels, the RFS should continue to serve as the bedrock for our nation’s decarbonization efforts,” said Geoff Cooper, RFA chief executive.

“The only logical path forward for the RFS is to increase the volume requirements and maximize the program’s ability to drive down carbon in the transportation fuels sector,” Cooper said at the National Ethanol Conference in New Orleans.

In coming months, the EPA is expected to propose a “regulatory reset” of the RFS, which would govern the allocations given to conventional and advanced biofuels in the years ahead, beginning in 2023. Until now, allocations were based on a schedule written by Congress with a 15-billion-gallon-a-year ceiling for corn ethanol. The new rules would be based on criteria such as the impact of renewable fuels on air quality, climate change, wildlife habitat, food and fuel prices, and the availability of advanced fuels.

Conventional biofuels, such as corn ethanol, are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% compared with petroleum on a life-cycle basis. Advanced biofuels, such as biomass-based diesel, must show a 50% reduction. Conventional biofuels are produced in abundance: ethanol output hit 15 billion gallons last year during the economic recovery from the pandemic. But advanced fuels are produced at a comparative trickle.

A proposed consent decree would require the EPA to finalize the RFS for 2021 and 2022 by June 3, said Growth Energy, a biofuel group. The Trump administration left office without acting on the 2021 RFS, and the Biden administration was late with a proposal for this year. By statute, the EPA is supposed to complete work on each year’s RFS before the start of the calendar year.

“This agreement is a significant milestone for the biofuels industry and reflects Growth Energy’s persistent efforts to hold EPA accountable to its responsibilities under the RFS,” said Emily Skor, chief executive of that trade group. Growth Energy filed suit in federal court in an effort to force the EPA to act.

Late last year, the EPA said it would set the ethanol mandate at its highest level ever in 2022 — a combined 15.25 billion gallons: 15 billion gallons under the standard terms of the RFS and a “supplemental standard” of 250 million gallons as a step toward satisfying a 2017 appeals court decision. It also said it would deny 65 requests by refiners for RFS exemptions. The EPA proposed a corn ethanol target of 13.2 billion gallons for 2021 and a retroactive revision of the 2020 RFS for ethanol to 12.5 billion gallons.

“This package of actions will enable us to get the RFS program back into growth mode” following the disruptions of the pandemic, said EPA administrator Michael Regan. “EPA remains committed to the growth of biofuels in America as a critical strategy to secure a clean, zero-carbon energy future.”

EPA official Sarah Dunham reiterated the commitment to biofuels growth during an appearance at the National Ethanol Conference.

During his speech, Cooper said that along with encouraging the EPA to give ethanol a larger allocation, the RFA also was working with lawmakers for passage of a low-carbon fuel standard. “We believe future decarbonization policies must take a technology-neutral, performance-based approach that focuses on reducing carbon emissions and increasing fuel efficiency —without tipping the scales toward electrification or dictating the use of specific fuels or vehicles,” he said.

A week ago, scientists said the RFS resulted in the release of at least as much carbon “and likely at least 24% higher” greenhouse gas emissions than the petroleum it displaced during the first eight years it was in effect. Cooper disputed the research, which was published in a scientific journal.

The EPA homepage for the RFS is available here.

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