Farm state lawmakers and agribusiness have been hammering the EPA since it announced a plan last year for evaluating biofuels by their lifecycle emissions — including indirect land use changes.
It appeared then that corn-based ethanol wouldn't make the cut. The proposed rules, based on the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, required renewable fuels' lifecycle emissions to be at least 20 percent less than gasoline's. An early EPA review calculated that, with greenhouse gases from indirect land-use changes included, most corn ethanol wasn't much better than regular gas.
The EPA has now finalized the renewable fuel standard, and agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced today that corn ethanol will qualify after all.
"EPA has found that it is indeed 20 percent less greenhouse gas emitting than gasoline," Jackson said. "Based on what we know now, including indirect land use analysis, there is no basis to exclude these fuels."
What changed in less than a year?
Jackson told reporters that the agency wasn't trying to appease any industries, and she rejected the suggestion that the EPA had changed the science to meet an outcome.
U.S. crop productivity, the amount produced per acre, is at record levels, and "the numbers used in the proposal were not right," she said. With updated numbers, the agency came up with different results.
The EPA also recalculated its estimates of emissions from indirect land-use changes, known to be a large contributor to emissions but difficult to track. An example of indirect land-use changes, or ILUC, would be the greenhouse gases emitted from the razing of forests to grow food in Brazil because land that could have produced food in the United States was shifted to fuel crops instead. The EPA's initial assessment took land use in 40 countries into account; the new calculations were based on 160 countries, Jackson said.
"This is, at its root, an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," she said.
That effort is expected to cut oil imports by $41.5 billion and reduce emissions the equivalent of taking 27 million vehicles off the road.
A Message to the Biofuels Industry
The White House is "sending a very positive, very specific, very direct message that the Obama-Biden administration is highly supportive of the biofuels industry," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters.
That message came in three measures announced by President Obama during a meeting today with governors at the White House. First was the EPA's finalization of the renewable fuel standard, designed to provide guidance in meeting a congressionally mandated goal of 36 billion gallons of biofuel a year by 2022. The second was guidance from the Agriculture Department on rules for funding under the Biomass Crop Assistance Program to help meet that target. And the third was the release of a report by a government panel led by Vilsack, Jackson and Energy Secretary Steven Chu describing a national strategy for advancing biofuel development and commercialization.
The president also announced that he was creating another interagency task force to develop a strategy for developing carbon capture and storage for emissions from coal, with a goal of having five to 10 demonstration projects in operation by 2016. Chu said the target was commercial deployment in 10 years.
"We're intent on showing that science and technology can drive down the cost to where it's becoming an affordable solution," the energy secretary said.
Behind on the Biofuels Targets
The DOE determined last year that the United States was unlikely to make its 2022 target for biofuel production. So far, only about 12 billion gallons of biofuels are being produced annually.
Production of cellulosic ethanol, such as from wood chips and plant waste, was supposed to hit 100 million gallons by 2010 but is only about 6.5 million gallons now. Advanced biofuels such as algae are in their infancy. Instead, the bulk of today's biofuel is corn ethanol.
Existing corn ethanol production was grandfathered in under the 2007 energy law, which calls for 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol by 2022, but new operations faced the barrier of meeting the 20 percent rule under the EPA initial land-use change estimates. The new EPA assessment changes the landscape.
Jackson stressed, however, that those new biofuel operations will still have to meet the lifecycle emissions limits. The percentages are even higher for advanced biofuels, at 50 percent less, and 60 percent less for cellulosic biofuels.
"To get to that level, you have to be smart. You have to be energy efficient," Jackson said. "And that is where we see the industry going."
The executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, Monte Shaw, echoed that vision of the industry's future in a speech last week.
"I believe better science will clear up the current indirect land use debate," Shaw said. "Plant technology will continue to improve production efficiencies. Seed technology and better agronomic practices will continue to boost commodity yields at an increasing rate. In short, it won't be long until corn ethanol achieves the scientific benchmarks of an advanced biofuel."
The government panel's report suggests several strategies for increasing biofuel use in environmentally sound ways, including replacing higher-risk, less productive crops or abandoned lands with lower-risk and more productive cellulosic biofuel feedstock, and implementing better management strategies to get greater production from the same amount of land.
The panel calls for more support of research and development — the president's 2011 budget proposal includes five Regional Feedstock Research Centers — and greater government use of biofuels to create reliable markets, particularly in the Midwest. However, the panel also warned:
"As more farms and forests are utilized for biofuels production, careful consideration of feedstock production practices and location of biomass conversion plants will be required to avoid serious impacts on existing food, feed, and fiber markets and the quality of natural resources upon which we all depend on for clean air and water."
"Despite intense pressure from the corn ethanol industry to exclude emissions from indirect-land-use change, the EPA found that such emissions are a major source of heat-trapping pollution from corn ethanol and other food-based biofuels," the UCS wrote. "This finding affirms the view of 200 scientists and economists with relevant expertise who sent a letter to the EPA in September 2009 arguing that 'grappling with the technical uncertainty and developing a regulation based on the best available science is preferable to ignoring a major source of emissions'."
The EPA still faces hostility in Washington, where Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) made clear this week that industrial agriculture wants absolutely no regulation of their greenhouse gas emissions.
Peterson and fellow Democrat Ike Skelton of Missouri joined the introduction of legislation that would prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, especially when it comes to biofuels.
"Americans know we're way too dependent on foreign oil and fossil fuels in this country — and I've worked hard to develop practical solutions to that problem — but Congress should be making these types of decisions, not unelected bureaucrats at the EPA," Peterson said.
Those "unelected bureaucrats" are tasked with considering the good of the entire country, though. Unlike members of Congress, they aren't angling for one region's interests and they aren't lavished with campaign contributions and advertising support that now promises to balloon under the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.
Peterson's top campaign contributors? Donors connected with the crop production and basic processing industry have given him close to $700,000 over his career, and those connected with agricultural services and products have contributed about $392,000, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In this election cycle, Peterson is the No. 3 recipient of agribusiness money in Congress, receiving $185,500 so far. No. 1, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), is also co-sponsoring legislation to block the EPA.
Clean fuel standards are also facing challenges in the courts. California, which has been leading the way on renewable fuel standards and lifecycle emissions calculations, was hit by another lawsuit this week over its low-carbon fuel standard.
The state's LCFS requires fuel providers to reduce the average carbon intensity of their fuels 10 percent by 2020, and takes into account land use changes. The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association and American Trucking Associations filed a complaint claiming that the rules violate commerce law and discriminate against Canadian oil and Midwestern corn ethanol.