Calling for 36 billion gallons of biofuel to be produced by 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a long-awaited final rule on the implementation of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) established in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

One of several announced Obama administration efforts to boost renewable fuels, the final rule is being both embraced and criticized by farm-state legislators and advocacy groups. Despite criticisms, the rule is expected to provide a boost for biofuel manufacturers.

The White House said increasing renewable fuels “will reduce dependence on oil by more than 328 million barrels a year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than 138 million metric tons a year when fully phased in by 2022.”

(See White House memorandum.)

Currently, some 11 billion gallons of ethanol is produced annually in the United States so production will have to be ramped up to hit the 36 billion gallon target. The current ethanol output is exempted from a law stating biofuels must have greenhouse gas emissions at least 20 percent lower than gasoline.

That standard was a cause of concern for corn ethanol advocates. It was unknown if the EPA’s latest data-crunching would show corn-based fuels had achieved the needed percentage. Last year, the EPA released figures showing such targets would not be met by corn-based fuels.

In the lead-up to EPA’s final rule release, ethanol advocates warned if the “less than 20 percent” rule was unmet the industry would be badly impacted.

In response to questions about EPA’s newest calculations, Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator, said ethanol now meets the mandated target because of improved modeling. “We’ve followed the science. Our models have become more sophisticated and we’ve accrued better data.”

“We’re pleased the EPA recognizes that corn ethanol provides a distinct advantage over conventional gasoline when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, with a reduction of more than 21 percent in some cases,” said Darrin Ihnen, a South Dakota farmer and National Corn Growers of America president.

“This means that all corn ethanol including existing grandfathered capacity and new production will qualify to meet the conventional biofuels targets in the RFS.” (Full NCGA statement)

The EPA “was right to recognize that ethanol from all sources provides significant carbon benefits compared to gasoline,” said Bob Dineen, Renewable Fuels Association president. “As structured, the RFS is a workable program that will achieve the stated policy goals of reduced oil dependence, economic opportunity, and environmental stewardship. The RFS is the public policy building block upon which America’s renewable fuels industry will be built. Today’s industry and tomorrow’s ethanol producers require stable federal policy that provides them the market assurances they need to commercialize new technologies. To that end, EPA has achieved that goal.” (RFA statement)

Perhaps the biggest source of controversy with the final rule, indirect land use, has carried over from the EPA’s proposed rule last spring. The land-use theory posits that with increased biofuel demand, grains will claim more acreage worldwide and negatively impact food production and the environment. Then, as now, critics loudly complained that science and modeling are not advanced enough for the EPA to consider such effects.

“Typical of most decisions made in Washington, there is some good and some bad in the Renewable Fuel Standard final rule,” said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, House Agriculture Committee chairman, who recently introduced legislation aimed to prevent EPA from considering indirect land use in ethanol carbon “footprint” calculations.

“I am pleased that ethanol and biodiesel will qualify as advanced biofuels under the RFS. However, I am concerned about some provisions in the final rule that fail to use science-based standards. To think that we can credibly measure the impact of international indirect land use is completely unrealistic, and I will continue to push for legislation that prevents unreliable methods and unfair standards from burdening the biofuels industry.”

Indirect land use “is the perfect example of bad science being applied unfairly,” Ihnen said. “Removing the impacts from the international indirect land use theory means that corn ethanol actually provides a 52 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, compared to gasoline. The EPA is not considering similar indirect impacts of petroleum-based fuels, so why are they so stringent when it comes to green, renewable corn ethanol?”

A burr under the saddle of a wide swath of agriculture and biofuel advocates, indirect land use was also addressed by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “EPA has concluded that the existing biofuels do meet the lifecycle greenhouse gas emission limits imposed as a part of” the RFS, said Harkin. “This clarity is very important given the uncertainty over whether indirect land use change emissions calculations that had been included in the proposed rule issued last spring might make some biofuels ineligible for inclusion under the mandate.

“Despite this, I am disappointed that the EPA continues to use questionable data and methods for calculating ‘indirect land use changes’ at all. These methods are not adequately developed, and thus should not be used in ways making it harder for ethanol and biodiesel to meet requirements of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. If we continue to do this, we’ll exclude some good biofuels and stifle the investment that is so essential to our national renewable fuels strategy.”

(American Soybean Association’s statement)

(American Farm Bureau Federation's statement)

(National Biodiesel Board statement)

email: dbennett@farmpress.com