Climate Bill moves to Senate, but can biofuels be saved?

osprey (photo by Patrick Archibald, creative commons license)

The day I went on vacation (June 26th), the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill. It was an exciting way to kick off a break but came with the bitter-sweet knowledge that concessions wrung by Rep. Collin Peterson and entrenched big-ag threaten to turn biofuels into dirty fuels and our biofuels policies into bad ag subsidies that make global warming worse.

Today in the Senate, my colleague Dave Hawkins is testifying before the Energy and Public Works Committee and will be outlining the urgency of moving forward and addressing eight key strengths and eight key improvements that are needed as the Senate takes up ACES. (You can find his testimony here.) NRDC's president, Frances Beinecke also has a blog today focusing specifically the three biofuels related fixes that the Senate needs to address. I want to put a fine point on one of these.

Peterson forced Waxman and Speaker Pelosi to prohibit EPA from including GHG emissions from international indirect land-use change for at least 5 years when determining if biofuels actually reduce global warming pollution compared to oil as required under the renewable fuel standard. As Hawkins said today: "If EISA’s requirement for full life-cycle analysis is postponed, then NRDC believes it is necessary to delay further implementation of the Renewable Fuel Standard as well."

In other words, if we can't tell whether the biofuels being mandated by the RFS2 are actually reducing global warming pollution or are actually worse than oil, Congress should suspend the RFS2 entirely. A commenter on my last post put it well when he said:

...[L]et's at least be evenhanded: repeal the current law's 36 billion gallon biofuels mandate during that evaluation period. After all, biofuels proponents are repealing the safeguards that accompanied that mandate. First, let's do no harm, because who could be against good science and process particularly when the stakes of the climate are so high?

I wrote about this deal before the vote. There are a few minor saving graces: Waxman and Peterson filed letters with Speaker Pelosi and President Obama indicating that their deal was just a deal for getting the bill passed indicating that we can count on Waxman to fight again when the bill comes back for House-Senate conference. Also the prohibition is just for indirect land-use emissions outside the country of origin meaning that domestic land-use change emissions will continue to be included as will indirect emissions from non-land changes (e.g. fertilizer use). But to give a sense of how damaging this requirement to use faulty carbon accounting is consider the following table from EPA proposed RFS2 rule (large PDF) (excerpted from Table VI.C.1-1):

The international land-use change is the largest single source of pollution associated with biofuels (corn ethanol specifically in this case). There's lots of room for valid debate about the methodology for calculating these emissions, but by 2015, the RFS would force us to use 9.4 billion gallons more of biofuels than we'll use this year (about double what we used last year), and by 2022 the RFS will reach 36 billion gallons.

As I wrote about early last year, the when the EU decided to take its time accounting for emissions from land-use change, they also lowered their biofuels targets. If we're not going to use the best available science, we need to stop requiring more and more biofuels until we can get them right.