Balancing Act: EPA's RFS Public Process

The nation’s biofuels policies remain much in the news of late, in part because for the first time ever the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed reducing the volume requirements for both advanced and conventional biofuel, relative to the targets originally put in the law. 

Last Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency hosted a marathon listening event to gather views on its proposal, in keeping with the normal public input process.   A lot of folks expended a lot of energy crying foul, all the while seeming to forget that Congress made clear from the get go that the EPA had the authority to make mid-course corrections just like this.

NRDC testified at the hearing too, but took different tack than those who assert EPA should ignore the issues unfolding on the ground or Congress should tank the whole program.  This is simply not a black and white issue and the details are very important.

EPA bases its proposal on two separate trends. First, the slow emergence of cellulosic biofuel means that there will not be enough to meet statutory obligations. Second, the statutory ethanol requirements may now be at risk of exceeding what can be realistically blended into gasoline.

NRDC supports sustainable biofuels because we need to reduce transportation carbon pollution.  As we’ve written before, biofuels can be part of the solution. But feedstocks are also tied to land, water, and wildlife. Poor decisions or the wrong feedstocks can increase carbon pollution, harm water quality and wipe out biodiversity. Overall, EPA has the task of striking a balance that achieves meaningful volumes of low carbon biofuels while not causing other environmental harm. Achieving this will be the product of many decisions over many rulemakings. 

But in the current rulemaking, EPA can keeping moving things in the right direction if it achieves two things.

First, EPA must contend with what appear to be genuine blending challenges that would make it impractical to meet the statutory volumes. At this point, we believe it is implausible for EPA to completely ignore these constraints. In fact, Congress explicitly authorized the agency to address circumstances like the present one and we support EPA’s authority to take action. 

Second, EPA must also avoid overcorrecting. It shouldn’t apply waiver authority every time reasonable compliance cost or modest supply constraints are present. It must use its authority sparingly and prioritize waiving fuels that provide the least environmental benefit. Whether EPA’s proposal precisely hits it’s its mark will require more study and more feedback.  And that is the whole point of a public input process: to gather information, conduct analysis, and decide whether the initial course is over aggressive or not aggressive enough. Those details will emerge over the next several months as we continue to analyze EPA’s proposal and anyone serious about putting biofuels on the right track should keep engaging through this public process.

The bottom line is, EPA must strike a careful balance and it appears to be attempting that.  It must use its existing authority to address infrastructure challenges, avoid overcorrection, and do this all in a way that prioritizes genuinely sustainable, non-food biofuels.  That’s a tall order.  But over the long term, those are the realistic benchmarks for a biofuel program that does not harm the environment or implode. Fortunately, EPA is well equipped to handle the task.