USDA's Vilsack talks about the future but wants to waste $6b on the past

Today, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gave a speech outlining the administration’s policies on biofuels, focused on reducing our dependence on foreign oil and supporting rural economies. Unfortunately, while he embraced a vision for transitioning from corn ethanol towards the newer, cleaner, advanced biofuels we need, when it came to concrete policy he signaled administration support for an extension of wasteful corn ethanol subsidies and praised EPA’s flawed decision to allow even more corn ethanol to be blended into our fuel supply.

Vilsack reaffirmed the goal laid out in the Renewable Fuels Standard to produce 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2022 and acknowledged that the biofuels that we produce today—roughly 12 billion gallons of ethanol, primarily from corn—are not advanced:

Today, we produce around 12 billion gallons of ethanol biofuels and around 800 million gallons of biodisel. Very little of which is considered an advanced biofuel.

He also focused on a new USDA Economic Research Service report titled Effects of Increased Biofuels in the US Economy in 2022, which highlights the positive economic impacts of increased productivity and technological progress in the domestic biofuels industry.

However, Secretary Vilsack failed to make a critical distinction between policies that promote more biofuels and those that promote better biofuels.  Instead, he indicated administration support for an extension of the largest government incentive program for biofuels—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit or “VEETC”—which has cost taxpayers $20 billion over the last four years and gone primarily towards subsidizing the mature corn ethanol industry, and ironically the oil industry.  Besides competing with our food supply and raising the price of food and feed in our stores, the EPA found that when all direct and indirect impacts are factored in, corn ethanol creates more global warming polluting than the gasoline it is meant to replace. While Vilsack acknowledged that reform is needed and only called for a “short-term” extension, even a one-year extension of the VEETC at current levels would cost taxpayers nearly $6 billion and deliver little to no additional domestic corn ethanol production above and beyond what is already mandated by the RFS.  But besides being redundant and wasteful at a time when every dollar counts, it comes at the expense of developing new and cleaner advanced biofuels, such as perennial grasses grown on marginal or once degraded lands, winter cover crops grown on exposed cropland, and sustainably managed forests that provide a wide range of critical ecosystem services.

Vilsack praised EPA’s decision last week to raise the limit on the amount of corn ethanol that can be blended with our gasoline, from 10% currently to 15% for vehicles made after 2007 as helping to boost demand for biofuels.  This is despite opposition by a broad coalition of environmental groups, public health advocates, livestock ranchers and automakers, who have long called on the administration to follow the science and conduct more thorough testing of the impacts of higher ethanol blends on air pollution before approving gasoline with higher ethanol blends—commonly referred to as E15. These groups have pointed to serious environmental and public health concerns around the tailpipe emissions of vehicles that run on gasoline blended with ethanol, which damages the pollution controls in older engines causing more toxic air pollution to be released from cars.

He also announced plans to issue final rules to implement the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), aimed at expanding the range of biomass feedstocks for biofuels and assisting farmers to grow more sustainable, perennial “energy crops”. To date, however, the BCAP program has raised serious concerns, which we discussed here earlier this year. Though it was supposed to support the development of new feedstocks for advanced biofuels, if the program’s pilot phase is any indication, it looks like it will spend the vast majority of its funding to pay for the collection of wood for biomass energy, rather than helping develop truly sustainable biomass sources. Thus, it will neither helping lay the groundwork for a transition to advanced biofuels, nor source biomass in a way that encourages sustainability.

Our policies need to create markets and guide regulations that actually incentivize us to choose sustainable biofuels. Critical to this are performance-based policies that encourage the development of broadly sustainable agronomic systems for biomass production. Without appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that we are choosing sustainable biomass feedstocks and harvesting them in ways that protect our lands, programs like BCAP could do more harm than good if they lead to the degradation of forests. Unfortunately, USDA has not conducted the necessary environmental assessment, nor established the necessary safeguards, to ensure that this does not occur. Secretary Vilsack indicated that the final rule includes provisions intended to address these concerns and we certainly hope this is the case. NRDC will track those provisions when the rule is published so look out for future posts for follow-up.

The Gulf Coast oil disaster has made clear that we must urgently transition toward low-carbon fuels if we are to break our dangerous dependence on oil, minimize the risk of further oil spills, and decrease global warming pollution. Advanced biofuels can be part of the solution to these challenges, but let’s be clear. Not all biofuels are created equal, and corn-based ethanol is one that does more harm than good.

The EPA’s decision last week to raise the limits on how much corn ethanol can be blended in our gasoline and the ongoing taxpayer subsidies for corn ethanol are a mistake. We know that corn ethanol is not a clean fuel, and therefore, the administration should not be promoting it. Instead of helping to accelerate the shift towards better-performing, truly low-carbon advanced biofuels, these policies waste precious resources that should be devoted to establishing a genuinely sustainable biofuels industry.

See here for NRDC’s press release in reaction to Secretary Vilsack’s speech.