Washington's love affair with biofuels is showing no signs of cooling, as Rep. Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) introduced a bill in Congress last week that would give a 30 percent tax credit for investment in advanced biorefineries.
But some environmental groups have started to question the EPA's accounting system for greenhouse gas emissions for what makes a fuel 'advanced.' They worry that flaws in the system could mean the new tax credit would support energy sources that aren't so environmentally friendly after all.
The Advanced Biofuel Investment Act, cosponsored by Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), aims to spur investment in fuels that could help meet the requirements of the 2007 Renewables Fuels Standard. Under that law, 36 billion gallons of biofuels must be produced by 2022, up from 12 billion this year. Of those 36 billion, more than 21 billion gallons must come from new-generation feedstocks made from non-food sources, such as wood and grass.
The bill's tax incentive, Sandlin said, would move capital in the direction it needs to go to meet that goal.
"This new investment tax credit will help private industry realize the promise of advanced biofuels for making our nation energy independent through the production of clean-burning domestic biofuels, while also creating jobs in communities across the nation, including in many rural communities," she said.
How Advanced is Advanced?
For environmental advocates, the problems crop up when one starts to look at what 'advanced' really means.
As the clamor against corn-based ethanol has increased, so have calls for biofuels that truly provide an environmental benefit. Such fuels would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also would not compete with food crops or force other land-use changes.
Rep. Sandlin's bill defines advanced fuels as anything that can reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent over traditional fuels.
But according to Kate McMahon, energy policy campaigner at the non-profit Friends of the Earth, if those lifecycle calculations are based on recent EPA rules, then they almost certainly won't represent true 50 percent reductions.
The main issue lies in the fact that the EPA wants to use estimates for emissions projected forward to 2022, rather than current data. This includes crop yields, which may be especially hard to predict given that many scientists think climate change is already changing agricultural conditions around the country. Also, analyses in the shorter term show that some biofuel feedstocks will not reduce emissions for the next few years at least, making the 2022 baseline even less useful.
"If you have fuels creating lots of pollution today, you should probably regulate them on the pollution they're creating today, not on what benefits they might be providing tomorrow," McMahon told SolveClimate. "That makes no sense. Basing these regulations off of what we think yields could be tomorrow, or what we think could happen over the next decade and a half or so, it's just not correct."
Lawsuits and Petitions
Friends of the Earth and Clean Air Task Force (CATF), a Boston-based environmental advocacy group, filed a lawsuit this week against the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia to try to get the agency to change the rule.
The March 2010 rule established that all available biofuels, including corn ethanol, achieve the required emissions reductions in the nation's Renewables Fuel Standard. Jonathan Lewis, an attorney with CATF, said the rule gives a false impression about the true climate benefits of biofuels.
"Our main concern with the rule is that it perpetuates the misconception that biofuels universally reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Lewis. "EPA's own data show that not to be the case."
In addition to the lawsuit, FOE and the CATF have petitioned the EPA to reconsider various other parts of its rule. One petition, submitted only by CATF, is the lack of consideration of the "global rebound effect" in the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions calculations. The rebound effect occurs because some gasoline will be displaced from the U.S. market, allowing supply to outstrip demand globally, lowering prices elsewhere and increasing consumption.
"If EPA had considered the 'global rebound effect' in its analysis of different biofuels," CATF said in a release, "only a few of those fuels would have met Congress's emissions reduction requirements."
It is just another example of how complex the process of determining a biofuel's environmental impact can be.
Climate Isn't Everything
And as McMahon pointed out, greenhouse gas emissions aren't the whole story with biofuels.
"With biofuels, I think we've kind of been caught up in this frame of climate, climate, climate," she said. "And while climate change is certainly very important and we really need to deal with it, there are other sorts of impacts that can happen from agricultural production that we need to be mindful of as well."
For example, the Renewables Fuel Standard does not address whether crops grown for biofuel use potentially dangerous herbicides and pesticides, which are often involved with large-scale farming. Land use is the other major concern, but McMahon said the EPA's treatment of that subject also has major flaws.
Instead of examining if non-agricultural land is being converted for bioenergy use in specific areas, the EPA looked at the overall national trend instead. Since the amount of total agricultural land is generally stagnant, that suggested to the EPA that no such conversion is occurring. Some farmland could be succumbing to urban sprawl with other land being converted elsewhere, though, calling the calculation into question.
"You could still have expanding farmland into our sensitive ecosystems, such as the few remaining native prairie lands that we have," McMahon said. "So that's hugely problematic."
The CATF and FOE petition included a request to change that system.
With all these problems leading to potentially significant overestimates of greenhouse gas reductions, Rep. Sandlin's bill could provide tax breaks for those investing in environmentally damaging fuels, the groups say.
Sandlin, of course, sees it differently.
"Whether it's the corn cobs gathered from South Dakota fields or woody biomass collected in the Black Hills, South Dakota has an abundance of renewable biomass that would qualify under this Investment Tax Credit," she said.