In hand wringing over biofuels mandate, safeguards at risk

The Hill was alive with the sound of finger pointing and hand-wringing yesterday when I testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality about the RFS. (All the testimony including mine is available on the Subcommittee's web site.  Mine is also available here, on NRDC's site, and my oral statement, which I basically read, is here if you want the 600 word version.) The hearing was ostensibly an EPA oversight hearing to learn about implementation of the RFS, but it was really mostly a platform for two groups of legislators: 1) those that want to reduce or eliminate the RFS and replace it with more domestic oil, liquid coal or both and 2) those that want to gut the safeguards in the RFS.

Any number of oil and coal patch republicans or dems would probably vie for the leadership of the first group, but the ranking member of Energy and Commerce, Joe Barton (R-Texas) would get my vote. He has a bill to repeal the recent RFS and reinstate the 2005 RFS. This would cut the corn ethanol mandate in half and entirely eliminate the advanced biofuels requirements and all of the minimum lifecycle GHG standards and land and wildlife safeguards.

The leader of the second group is Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) who has a bill (H.R. 5236) to replace the current definition of eligible woody biomass, which includes the safeguards, with the version that passed in the Senate last year, which effectively allows in all wood. 

Now the politics here are really strange because of course the anti-biofuels fossil fuel group was more than happy to support the anti-safeguard crowd, but many of the anti-safeguard are strongly pro-corn. So when Rep. Herseth Sandlin testified about her bill she had to spend half her time talking about how great corn ethanol is and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill) basically yelled at his colleagues. "This is very frustrating, how short-sighted we are to walk away [from corn ethanol]," he boomed, and then at the end, he added that what we really needed to do was pass the Herseth Sandlin bill and add liquid coal to the mix.

Adding to the array of strange bedfellows, four environmental groups sent a letter to the Subcommittee's chair adding their voice to that of the Governor of Texas, and a bunch of Senate Republicans calling for a waiver of the current RFS.

A voice of reason came in a statement from the Chair of Energy and Commerce, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). As the first line of a comprehensive article in the E&E Daily (subscrip) by Alex Kaplum put it: "House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) threw cold water yesterday on the growing cry to scale back the federal ethanol mandate Congress approved last year."

Among other things in his statement, he says the following:

I would observe that the ink had hardly dried on this new law when the clamoring began to alter the RFS, and these requests for Congressional intervention continue. In my view, amendments to the law at this time would be unwise and could lead to unintended consequences.

I believe that all stakeholders would be well-advised to consult with the EPA as it develops the rule and try to address any concerns within that forum. If unresolved issues still remain after the rule is finalized, there may be need for Congressional action. To act in advance of that date, however, undermines important processes.

Another good article in E&E Daily on Monday by Ben Geman got my perspective on these various efforts right:

Nathanael Greene, a biofuels expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said biofuels are among the many factors that are contributing to increased food costs. But he does not see altering the biofuels mandate as the answer.

Instead, he argues that lawmakers should "build on top" of the mandate by altering biofuels tax credit and tariff policy. Lawmakers should encourage biofuels that fare best in terms of greenhouse gas reductions and other environmental factors, he said, which would thereby steer production toward cleaner fuels that do not compete with food.

"The solution to a lot of the global warming concerns, particularly the land-use emissions concerns, and the solution to getting biofuels out of the food price equation are the same thing," he said.

Greene is also concerned that reopening the mandate would allow for "mischief," such as a push to weaken environmental restrictions in last year's energy bill.

The Herseth Sandlin bill certainly qualifies as mischief in my book. While my testimony provides a full explanation of why we think the RFS got the definition of renewable biomass and woody biomass specifically right, I'll summarize our points here:

First it's important to understand that our wild landscapes and federal lands are only becoming more critical to wildlife and for their ecosystem services and as stores of carbon as global warming puts increased pressure on our lands. So the need for safeguards is greater than every. Still the new RFS allows the vast majority of woody feedstock that is likely to ever be economically viable for biofuels. It only excludes: old growth, few remaining grasslands, our most sensitive landscapes, federal lands, and the conversion of natural forests to forest plantations.

In other words, all the material from a forest plantation can be used, as can the material from a naturally managed forest (one that uses natural regeneration). But you can't convert a natural forest to a forest plantation. Plantations may look like forests but they're deserts from the perspective of biodiversity.

The federal land exclusion is a big sticking point for Herseth Sandlin, who has a number of interests that want to harvest the Black Hills for energy. But "preventative thinning" from a forest is ostensibly to restore the forest health and reduce the risk of fires. This means that you don't want the material to grow back, which makes it an open loop source of carbon not unlike the carbon from coal. Furthermore, the evidence that thinning helps reduce the risk of fire is uncertain at best and there are studies that suggest that it actually makes fires worse. And finally, for that material that is already being cut and left in the forests, there are better more local and more appropriately scaled options such as producing heat and power for local communities.

The only thing that I would add to Ben's E&E Daily article is that I actually offered three steps that Congress should take to build on the RFS:

  1. Adopt a low-carbon fuel standard, as California and Massachusetts are planning to do.
  2. Pass comprehensive climate legislation built around a mandatory, economy-wide carbon cap and a carbon credit trading system.
  3. Reform the various existing biofuels tax credits and import tariffs to be a single technology-neutral, performance-based credit to encourage water efficiency, reduced water pollution, better soil management, and enhanced wildlife management.