Putting Renewable Fuels Back on Track

Recent headlines have placed a renewed spotlight on the nation’s primary tool to expand biofuels, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). There are a lot of folks who want to tell a simple, black and white story about biofuels and the Renewable Fuels Standard.  The RFS either needs to be dashed on the rocks or anchored in a safe harbor never to be touched.

The truth is not that simple.  There is no denying that the bulk of today’s conventional corn ethanol carries grave risks to the climate, wildlife, waterways, and food security.  It is equally true that as a nation we need low carbon, sustainable biofuels to combat climate change and break our addiction to oil. 

It is also a fact that developing sustainable, next generation biofuels is complicated.  It’s technically and economically challenging and it’s not going to happen without ongoing course corrections to ensure the explicit goal of the Renewable Fuel Standard is met—namely to move the country away from polluting fuels like gasoline and today's corn ethanol and toward sustainable, low-carbon alternatives.

It is also important to remember that when Congress passed the RFS, it did two things.  It set an aspirational goal of 36 billion gallons of biofuel, including 22 billion gallons of non-corn biofuel.  And it recognized implementation might encounter hurdles along the way.  That’s why Congress also established safety valves that allow the EPA to make ongoing adjustments, including addressing the “blend wall”.  So when the heated rhetoric gets set aside, EPA is poised to do exactly what Congress directed when it proposes its 2014 volume rule for public comment and consideration.

The details will be important and we look forward to reviewing them.  However, EPA is taking steps to strike a good balance between throwing the baby out with the bath and turning a blind eye to the legitimate issues unfolding in the market. That is one reason why NRDC supports the Environmental Protection Agency taking action to get our nation’s primary biofuels policy tool—the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)—back on track. 

The other—and probably best reason—is that today’s political environment hasn’t proven very friendly to nuanced outcomes.  The notion that the most anti-environmental House in history is going to come up with a national biofuels policy that better protects our nation’s resources, avoids profound unintended consequences, and cuts the dangerous carbon pollution House Leadership denies is even a problem is hard to swallow.   In fact, I’d wager that any betting man would assume the opposite outcome. 

Ultimately, to achieve the goals of the RFS, the key will be expanding next generation fuels that can use a diversity of feedstocks guided by a smart set of policies that protect our biodiversity, food and feed supplies, and climate.  To hit the mark, the biofuels program must not require more consumption of a given feedstock than the environment can comfortably support.  

Bottom line, there is no magic bullet.  Striking the right balance isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to take nuanced thinking, experience, and some trial and error.  And that is another good reason to support letting the experts at the Environmental Protection Agency do their job.