White House Initiative, EPA Rule Promote Biofuels
In a meeting Wednesday with a bipartisan group of governors, President Barack Obama outlined a strategy for increasing the development and production of biofuels as a clean domestic energy source, according to a press release from the Energy Department. Following through on the agenda laid out in his State of the Union address and building on the report issued by the Biofuels Interagency Working Group, a presidential task force, Obama noted that biofuels production is currently far below the level demanded by Congress and called for further and better-coordinated investment, with an emphasis on “next-generation” or “advanced” biofuels.
In 2007 Congress approved a renewable fuels standard (RFS) that established a goal of producing 36 billion gallons of biofuel annually by 2022; the US currently produces 12 billion gallons per year. In their report titled “Growing America’s Fuel,” the Biofuels Working Group stated that the US was not on pace to meet the mandate of 36 billion gallons and pointed to the recession, a lack of public and private financing, and public funding that left gaps in the biofuel supply chain as obstacles to meeting Congress’s goal.
Obama’s push for biofuels coincided with the release of the EPA’s revised rule to implement the RFS program, also released on Wednesday. Last spring the EPA’s proposed rule created controversy and opposition from biofuels groups when it concluded that corn ethanol and soy biodiesel could create more carbon emissions than gasoline. The controversy centered on the EPA’s assessment of emissions from international land-use changes—that is, emissions caused by deforestation abroad when farmers grow crops to compensate for US crops withdrawn from the food market and given over to fuel. The EPA’s revised RFS program maintains that such indirect land-use emissions are part of ethanol’s lifecycle emissions, but changed its calculations of emissions and concluded that corn ethanol and soy biodiesel produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline or diesel and their use counts toward the RFS mandate.
The Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol industry group, applauded the administration’s endorsement of biofuels, but was disappointed that the EPA continued to measure indirect emissions. Growth Energy, the ethanol group led by Wesley Clark, says it will continue to fight the EPA’s authority to include international land-use emissions when measuring ethanol’s carbon footprint, reports The Hill’s E2 Wire blog.
Ethanol groups may be right to worry. While corn ethanol and soy biodiesel will be included in the administration’s push to boost biofuel production, the agenda laid out by the Biofuels Working Group shows a clear preference for advanced biofuels, saying that “Advanced next generation biofuels will be one of the nation’s most important industries in the 21st century.” Previous legislation has defined advanced biofuels as biofuels not derived from corn or biofuels that have 50 percent less lifecycle emissions than gasoline or diesel; examples include algal biofuels and cellulosic ethanol.
The administration’s agenda and the EPA’s revised RFS program give biofuels a privileged place in America’s energy future, but not all biofuels are equal. Biofuels that don’t raise concerns about international land-use changes—and therefore considered by the EPA to have fewer emissions—will likely be the focus of government funding. This trend is already clear, as the Department of Energy has directed many new grants projects working on algal biofuel.
Federal support for biofuels will help the heating oil industry meet legislative requirements to include biofuel content mandates that are already in place in Maine and Massachusetts, and being considered elsewhere. The EPA’s distinctions among biofuel types could also lend a helping hand to the heating oil industry; while ethanol and soy biodiesel were developed as transportation fuels, many new developments in biofuels are being applied to heating systems.
Heating oil consumers may be worried, and reasonably so, that a transition to biofuel heating oil will raise prices for them. Yet if the government continues to give full-throated support for biofuels, the biofuel industry and heating oil consumers could both stand to benefit.