EPA publishes final RFSII rule: a tool to move biofuels forward

Today EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, sign the final regulations to implement the renewable fuel standard as amended in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (a.k.a. RFSII). With the tools that EPA has developed, we can finally start to hold biofuels corporations accountable.

The final rule came out Just before a White House release of a package of efforts intended to speed up the development of advanced biofuels. More on this package later.

The final RFSII rule confirms that there are major differences between different types of biofuels. Some reduce global warming and some pollute more than gasoline and diesel. The RFSII rule builds on a robust, science based process and lays out a clear plan to further refine these tools through an NAS study that EPA has requested.

With EPA’s tools, we can have greater energy independence, create good American jobs, and we don’t have to sacrifice our health, climate or the environment.

The lower cellulosic volumes (6.5 million gallons instead of the original 100 million target set for 2010) and the significant public health and air quality impacts identified in the rule reinforce the urgency of starting to hold the industry accountable and moving beyond the dirty, old corn ethanol that dominate today’s markets. The RFSII is not enough; we need to reform the biofuel tax credits so that tax payers get real clean energy for their money, we need to focus government incentives on American innovation and jobs so we get the first billion gallons of the best biofuels into the market, and ultimately we need to evolve to a Low Carbon Fuel Standard like the one adopted in California.

A. What does the final rule say about indirect land-use?

EPA’s final rule confirms that for some biofuels, emissions from chopping down forests and plowing up wild places—so called “indirect land-use change”—are still the most significant source of emissions. And EPA’s rule holds businesses that cause these emissions accountable.

Through the incorporation of new data, EPA’s central value for emissions from land-use change has actually gone down since the proposed rule, but if the high end of the range is considered several fuels would not qualify for the RFS and would come close to having higher GHG emissions than petroleum fuels.

So the question is not whether this is a significant impact of certain biofuels, but how significant. Building on a peer-review process and extensive stakeholder comments, EPA’s methodology has held up. More data was incorporated into that existing methodology to get more accurate answers and further review including the proposed NAS study will further refine it over time.

Despite the uncertainty, the analysis confirms that advanced biofuels are the path to greater energy independence, better protecting our health and deep GHG reductions. That’s why we need to go build on the RFSII through reforming the biofuel tax credits, focusing incentives on the first billion gallons of the best biofuels, and eventually adopting an LCFS. These measures will move us beyond uncertainty and controversy if they are designed to develop biofuels of indisputable environmental merit.

B. How do EPA’s results compare to CA’s?

EPA and California Air Resource Board analyzed different things, but once you dig into the numbers, EPA’s findings reinforce CARB’s findings. This convergence further confirms the idea that there are good biofuels and bad biofuels, we have the tools to hold the industry accountable, and we need to be focused on getting the good biofuels into the market.

EPA focused on very optimistic assumptions about what biofuels will look like in 2022. CARB asked what biofuels are like today. EPA also had the advantage of almost a year of additional data and findings.

Digging into EPA’s analysis, their findings on the critical issue of emissions from land-use change are very close to California’s even though they used different methods, and CARB’s land use change results are well within the range of values EPA found in its uncertainty analysis for almost all biofuels.

C. Why did EPA’s numbers change so significantly from the NPRM?

EPA’s numbers changed because they got better data. The three most important updates were to the economics of yields, the value of coproducts that are produced along with biofuels, and higher definition satellite data.

The final GHG emissions numbers still make it clear that emissions from indirect land-use change is a hugely important issue that we cannot afford to ignore.

D. What does EPA’s regulatory impact assessment show?

EPA’s impact assessment (see page 6 for a summary table) shows that rushing blindly forward with the RFS threatens our health and water. Achieving the mandated future renewable fuel requirements will increase the risk of premature mortality in portions of the U.S as well as increase water pollution unless we move beyond corn ethanol and take steps to avoid these impacts. The biggest public health impact is from particulate matter emissions associated with the production of biofuels to achieve the mandated future renewable fuel requirements. More ethanol will also mean using more water and polluting more water.

Fortunately, these impacts can be avoided or at least minimized. EPA should implement the anti-backsliding requirements in EISA to address these impacts. These are exactly the sort of unintended consequences that provision was intended to address.

Clamping down on the air pollution from ethanol refineries is a critical first step that EPA can take on its own. Congress should follow up by reforming the biofuel tax credits so that they reward cleaner, greener biofuels and hold the dirty, old refiners accountable. Getting refineries to reduce their air pollution and water consumption is easy technologically; it’s just a matter of providing the right regulations and incentives.

Congress, California and tax payers that are subsiding the biofuels industry should not be swayed by the efforts of the dirty, old corn ethanol to shirk responsibility for threatening our health, destroying the rainforests, and polluting the climate. We can create better jobs, greater energy independence, and protect the climate if we start holding the industry accountable. EPA’s RFSII rule is a good start.

About the Authors

Nathanael Greene

Director, Renewable Energy Policy, Energy & Transportation program

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