Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules that would decrease the amount of ethanol and other biofuels that is required to be blended into our nation’s fuel supply as part of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). The new rules would take the requirement down to 15.21 billion gallons from the original 2014 target of 18.15 billion gallons.
The RFS was expanded in 2007 as a way to move our fuel system toward more domestically produced, renewable sources. By all accounts, the RFS has made a difference: We now have the capacity for ethanol to account for up to 10% of the gasoline we use each day, which means we are now less reliant on foreign oil than we were eight years ago. But we certainly don’t want to stop there, so what’s behind these new rules, and what’s next for renewable energy?
First of all, we see the EPA’s move as a necessary correction to a system that has become too dependent on food for fuel. As demand for ethanol has risen, food prices have gone up as fuel and food producers competed to buy the same commodities and swaths of food-producing cropland was converted to corn for ethanol. Rising corn prices also resulted in the conversion of American grasslands into cornfields at a rate comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Since grasslands hold carbon better than croplands, this lower rate of carbon storage makes any emissions savings of using corn- or soy-based biofuel less impressive when there is a realistic life-cycle accounting.
When the RFS was conceived, corn was never intended to be the only source of renewable fuel. The goal was to substitute corn ethanol for more advanced biofuels made from non-food sources once that market was up and running. While there have been some encouraging developments in the advanced biofuels world lately, the reality is that the capacity for widespread production of fuel from non-food sources is not ready yet. So the troubling part of last week’s EPA news, from our perspective, is the reduction of the mandate for advanced biofuels, which would go from 3.75 billion gallons required in 2014 down to 2.2 billion gallons. Yes, this was done in part to acknowledge that the capacity to create enough advanced biofuel has progressed slowly. However, the risk is that advanced biofuel development will be permanently impaired, and people and companies might just stop trying to push it forward.
The advanced biofuels industry is undoubtedly concerned. Here’s what Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association had to say about the proposal:
“If EPA sticks with 2.2 billion gallons in the final rule, the agency will pull the rug out from underneath the growing advanced biofuels industry. Innovative companies have responded to the challenge of producing cleaner, low-carbon fuels by investing a collective $14 billion in the development of advanced and cellulosic biofuels.…Such a move will chill future investments necessary to produce large-scale quantities of renewable fuels that cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent compared to gasoline.”
Here in the United States, even though fuel economy is rising, we are importing less oil, and gasoline prices at the pump are down from a high of over $4 in 2008, we believe that being reactive in our national food and fuel systems could be catastrophic. Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call as to how vulnerable our oil system is. Earlier this year, the U.S. almost ran out of corn and soybeans as grain inventories from 2012’s drought-damaged crop reached their lowest levels in 30 years. This year’s crops faired much better, but back-to-back drought years would have been devastating to our fuel and food systems.
At Sustainable America, we believe that an important part of the solution is to keep working toward more widespread use of advanced biofuels made from non-food sources like algae, waste water, or even thin air. These proposed RFS rules do loosen the connection between food and fuel, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the long-term goal of energy independence rooted in renewable fuels. We need to continue to support innovation in the advanced biofuels industry if we want to build a truly sustainable America.