The battle over the Environmental Protection Agency’s contentious Renewable Fuel Standard is about to get incandescent.
After more than a year of uncertainty, the EPA is preparing to finalize new targets -- they are supposed to be revealed annually -- for the controversial standard, or RFS, by the end of this month. EPA is so far behind, in fact, that some of the quotas it is about to deliver are for 2014 and 2015 -- years that are long gone and nearly so.
Adding further to the strange situation, the quotas for future years, especially for rare so-called cellulosic bio-fuels made from specialty grass, or crop refuse, are likely to continue to be, as the agency puts it, sharply “higher than what the market would produce and use in the absence of such market-driving standards.”
Even so, those amounts are going to be lower than current law otherwise mandates, meaning that, as it has in the past, EPA will set standards that no one can meet, then waive them in favor of targets that EPA only guesses can be met, and “that would not be expected to occur in the absence of those volume requirements.”
The quotas for corn-based bio-fuel, however, could well remain flat, or even slightly less: a proposed version of the new standards, which could still vary in the final version, set the amount for 2015 at 14 billion gallons.
As EPA ruminates, a growing chorus of business and environmental critics, as well as neutral scientists, are charging that the decade-old bio-fuel quota system, still mostly centered on corn-based ethanol, is distorting food markets, polluting national waters, and throwing off more greenhouse gases than the gasoline they currently replace. The new targets, they argue, will only make things worse.
“The EPA is in a real bind.”
Some critics want the RFS eliminated entirely. Others charge that the quota for corn-ethanol production, which makes up about 85 percent of U.S. biofuels, is the worst offender while other bio-fuels -- mostly non-existent in practical terms -- need a mandate to flourish.
RFS supporters -- among them corn grower and biofuel associations, legislators (including Republicans) from corn producing states and some environmental groups -- insist naysayers are distorting the issue, millions of tons of greenhouse gases are being eliminated, U.S. consumers are saving billions of dollars using biofuels, and thousands of jobs are at stake.
Both sides are laying down barrages of targeted TV ads in selected states to reinforce their permissions as the new deadline approaches.
For its part, the Obama administration is maintaining an intriguing silence, at least in some quarters.
In documents filed for the Paris climate summit that begins Nov. 30 -- the same day EPA is slated to unveil its new bio-fuel goals -- the administration makes no mention at all of the impending RFS changes in its plan to make more drastic cuts in U.S. greenhouse gases through 2025 to slow “climate change.”
In effect, the White House is making no claim that the RFS will help the U.S. make additional draconian 26 to 28 percent cuts (against a 2005 baseline) in U.S. greenhouse gases by 2025.
The silence has already drawn a complaint from the Renewable Fuel Association, the country’s biggest biofuel lobby, which says that “the U.S. seems poised to ignore the most successful U.S. climate-energy policy ever enacted.”
Others see the RFS as a wrong-headed and exasperating flop --based on flawed calculations of international oil prices and ongoing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, bad arithmetic on U.S. fuel economy, overly narrow estimates of the carbon emissions involved in the full life-cycle of corn ethanol production, and too-optimistic visions of how fast alternatives to corn-based biofuels would come into production.
Making it worse has been an expanded, ratchet-style mandate as part of a 2007 updated version of the standard (known as RFS2) to hike the renewable fuel portion of the U.S. transport fuel supply from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022.
That has been achieved largely by blending 10 percent corn ethanol into increasing portions of the nation’s gasoline supply, which helped push corn ethanol production to 14.3 billion gallons last year.
But the 10 percent limit is as much ethanol as most U.S. car engines can use without suffering significant damage, known in refinery circles as the “blend wall.” Simultaneously, thanks to drastically tightening fuel-efficiency standards, U.S. gasoline consumption projections have dramatically declined. And thanks to the fracking revolution, the U.S. is now wallowing in domestically-produced oil, which has led to a steep price drop, making biofuels far less competitive or attractive.
The result? Faced with what it discreetly calls “real-world limitations,” the EPA has been stumbling since 2013 to juggle its mandate for ever-increasing amounts of transportation bio-fuels with lack of further opportunities to use them -- where the fuels even exist.
Remarkably, the agency failed last year to publish RFS targets at all. EPA said the cause was the time it took to digest more than 340,000 comments on the proposed RFS quotas.
In its proposed version of targets for next year and beyond, however, the agency has indicated that it no longer intends to respect the limits of the blend wall, by greatly expanding the future production of non-corn biofuels.
Among other things, this would make higher percentages of bio-additives available for the limited number of engines that can use 15 percent blending or, in the case of “flex-fuel” vehicles, up to 85 percent.
As the EPA more opaquely put it in the proposed version of its rule that was issued last summer, and will be revised for November 30: “We believe that the supply of renewable fuels can continue to increase in the coming years despite the constraints associated with shortfalls in cellulosic biofuel production and other advanced biofuels, and constraints associated with supplying renewable fuels to the vehicles and engines that can use them.”
The EPA assertions have set off loud alarm bells in Congress. In a Nov. 4 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, 184 Representatives declared it was “critical” that EPA keep from breaching the blend wall and “help limit the economic and consumer harm this program has already caused.”
Many of EPA’s assertions also have been challenged by academic researchers, including the way EPA calculates environmental and greenhouse gas benefits.
A study released last month by researchers at the University of Tennessee cited a 2011 National Academies of Science study in arguing that figures on corn ethanol’s greenhouse gas benefits in relation to gasoline do not include the emissions, usually from burning natural gas, that are used in processing the fuel before burning it in engines. Nor do the calculations include emissions involved in switching agricultural or forest land to corn production, which has happened as a result of the corn ethanol boom.
(A 2010 EPA environmental impact study, in fact, estimates that even using the agency’s own greenhouse accounting, it takes roughly 30 years for corn plantings to make up the emissions that result from converting non-agricultural land to their use.)
The study notes that corn ethanol also has additional environmental problems, starting with higher rates of soil erosion than other crops, high amounts of required water use, and greater amounts of ozone precursors and other air-polluting by-products.
Moreover, the study notes, diluting current gasoline supplies adequately to reduce carbon emissions in combustion doesn’t take 14 billion gallons of corn ethanol, but more like 4.34 billion.
In all, the study says, subsidies to corn ethanol production since 2005 amount to more than $50 billion.
“Corn needs to be de-emphasized,” Burton English, one of the Tennessee researchers, told Fox News. Indeed, the study argues, the current emphasis on corn-based ethanol is one of the major barriers to the development of other advanced biofuels.
“If the goal was to move to cellulosic ethanol from corn,” Burton said, “we are not doing it.”
The thrust of the Tennessee study is disputed by Jeremy Martin, the top biofuel expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Vehicles Program. Martin told Fox News that “inputs to their analysis” in the Tennessee report are “dated,” and gave implied support for current levels of corn ethanol production.
“The report from Tennessee suggests we should expand production of advanced biofuels at the expense of current biofuels, while keeping the share of gasoline fixed at 10 percent,” he said in an email to Fox News. “I think we need to keep cutting oil use, but certainly agree we should focus on advanced and cellulosic biofuels rather than further expanding corn ethanol.”
“It would be better if the Renewable Fuel Standard were simply repealed,” argues John DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute and a former senior fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund.
DeCicco told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology last week that “the Renewable Fuel Standard has been harmful to the environment since its inception,” adding that “the impacts have been worse since 2007,” when additional biofuel targets were added.
Calculations of corn ethanol’s greenhouse case savings were based on “an incorrect notion of carbon neutrality,” DeCicco said, that did not include, for example, the “harvesting of feedstock.”
As a result, he said, “The lifecycle models used for public policy to date assume carbon neutrality for biofuels without checking whether the conditions are verified for actual biofuel production.”
“The EPA is in a real bind,” DeCicco told Fox News after the hearing. “Congress wrote a law mandating imaginary fuels. These have failed to materialize in any quantity. Congress tried to codify wishful thinking.”
Moreover, he said, “the kinds of red flags I am raising are known.” DeCicco told Fox News that “I am one of many scientists” who has shared what he called “facts-on-the-ground” studies “with the administration, EPA and others” about the emissions gap.
Noting the administration’s silence about ethanol at the upcoming Paris summit, DeCicco noted, “they have good reason to be more cautious.”
So, perhaps, did the EPA. Last month, the agency’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) announced that it would begin “preliminary research” on whether, among other things, EPA had fulfilled its responsibilities to keep Congress updated with changes in findings on the environmental impacts of biofuels.
The OIG noted a 2011 EPA report to Congress on the topic, which was supposed to be followed up every three years, and asked for a copy of any such subsequent document. After an initial meeting with EPA officials late last week, OIG was likely to spend 90 days on the preliminary research phase. Any follow-up fieldwork, if required, might take as much as a year.
An OIG spokesman declined to tell Fox News the results of the watchdog’s request for documents, including the follow-up to its 2011 impact report.
However, when Fox News queried EPA directly for access to documents requested by the Inspector General, and specifically the updated version of the 2011 report, a spokesman emailed back a link to the 2011 report only.