The first step for Congress on climate, a big step on biofuels

Yesterday the Senate passed a historic energy bill that makes a much needed down payment on the global warming pollution reductions the United States needs to make to help avoid catastrophic climate change. (Here's NRDC's press release.) The bill is expected to be passed by the House early next week and the President has said he'll sign it.

These two quotes from this Washington Post article sum the story of the bill well:

"Could this bill have been better? Of course it could have," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), comparing it to a split decision in a boxing match. But he said it was still "a good bill."

and

Elizabeth Martin-Perera, climate policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "Congress should be congratulated for taking the first step in the sprint to solve global warming." But she added, "We're disappointed that there were some things left on the cutting-room floor."

My main area of involvement was the renewable fuel standard, which increased and extends the existing standard from requiring 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2012 to requiring 36 billion gallons by 2022. As importantly as the number the bill adopts the first ever global warming performance requirements and strict protections for sensitive lands.

I'll return to the details, but first it's important to acknowledge what an incredible team effort this was for the environmental community. While three of my colleagues (Jim Presswood, Franz Matzner, and Debbie Hammel) deserve particular credit, they worked hand in hand with experts from American Lung Association, Climate Action Network, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, NET, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and the Wilderness Society.

This broad coalition of groups started working together back in January of this year and together we tried to figure out what it would take to make biofuels a sustainable source of global warming reductions. We also watched the politics behind the renewable fuel standard heat up and jointly decided that we had to try to make the RFS as good as possible. We developed the performance standards and safeguards and won virtually all of them. Each of these groups will speak for themselves as to their opinion of the RFS and energy bill overall, but they deserve credit for starting to move our biofuels policies towards performance based policies and setting clear boundaries to help the biofuels industry develop on the green and narrow.

On the bill specifics, the 36 billion gallon requirement includes 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels, which are defined as renewable fuels other than ethanol produced from corn starch. 16 billion gallons of the advanced biofuels requirement comes from cellulosic biofuels, which are produced from plant material such as switchgrass or wood chips. The bill requires all of the biofuels to have lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions at least 20 percent less than gasoline. The advanced biofuels must all have emissions at least 50 percent less, and the cellulosic biofuels must have emissions at least 60 percent less. Importantly, we won wording changes that make the definition of lifecycle emissions broad enough to capture both the direct and indirect emissions caused by land-use change.

I believe that no provision will do more to protect fragile, carbon rich lands around the world, than the lifecycle standards, but we also won clear parameters for sustainable sourcing of biofuels feedstocks that guard against the loss of native forests and prairie. These provisions also protect threatened, imperiled, and endangered species and public lands. While additional safeguards are needed for biofuels (and all agriculture) to protect and preserve soil and water quality, the language in this bill takes a big step towards recognizing the broad range of impacts that biofuels can have if done carelessly.

Assuming these provisions are signed into law, we still have a lot of work cut out for us. While the energy bill is a down payment, it's not substitute for comprehensive mandatory carbon caps. Similarly on biofuels, the GHG standards are a big start, but we also need a low-carbon fuel standard to move beyond the minimum requirements established here. And of course how EPA actually implements the lifecycle emissions accounting is tremendously important and we're going to need to match the industry's resources to make sure the accounting is done on a rigorous, scientific basis. Finally, the land and feedstock safeguards won't mean anything unless we enforce them.

So a small, but important step for Congress and the US towards real climate policy, a big step on biofuels policy, but still just the first steps in what will be a long march.

About the Authors

Nathanael Greene

Director, Renewable Energy Policy, Energy & Transportation program

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