Inhofe bill seeks shift away from old corn ethanol but would have unintended consequences

There aren’t many things NRDC and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma agree on, but the need to shift biofuels incentives towards newer, cleaner advanced biofuels is one. Last week, Senator Inhofe introduced legislation that would broaden the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) definition of cellulosic biofuels to be technology neutral and include biofuels made from feedstocks such as algae. We agree with Senator Inhofe’s goal of moving away from corn ethanol towards the next generation of biofuels. Unfortunately, the bill as written would open the RFS pool reserved for “advanced biofuels” to non-ethanol corn starch based fuels and biofuels made from other conventional feedstocks. By doing so, it would have the unintended consequence of incentivizing the production of even more corn-based biofuels and dampening innovation in the biofuel industry.

The RFS requires 36 billion gallons of biofuels to be consumed annually in the U.S. by 2022, of which 15 billion gallons can be met with corn ethanol. The rest must come from “advanced biofuels”, of which 16 billion gallons must be produced from cellulosic materials.

The Inhofe bill would change the 16 billion gallon cellulosic mandate to a “next generation biofuels” mandate that can be filled with any non-ethanol fuel that achieves a 60% lifecycle reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline. This means that non-ethanol corn starch-based fuels such as biobutanol, all biodiesel feedstocks like palm and soy, as well as sugarcane feedstocks, would all qualify.

Biofuels made from conventional feedstocks such as corn don’t need any more support. These cheaper, more mature biofuels could quickly squeeze out the new and truly innovative technologies that the RFS advanced biofuels mandate is intended to bring to market.

Through the creation of different technology “bins”, the RFSII seeks to couple incentives for better environmental performance with support geared specifically towards the newest, most innovative biofuels with the best potential to scale up. In other words, the goal of the cellulosic mandate is not just to achieve a 60% reduction in GHG’s. It is just as much about commercializing a set of biofuels that can scale in much more environmentally responsible ways. Adding algae into this bin makes sense. Adding a lot of already mature conventional biofuels would just pull the rug out from under the companies trying to achieve this ultimate goal.