Advanced Biofuels Deliver Substantially Greater Pollution Reductions Than Corn-Based Ethanol
New Renewable Fuel Standard, Which Sets First Heat Trapping Emissions Requirements for Biofuels, Gets Favorable Review From UCS
EPA Analysis Demonstrated That Without Additional Support, Cleanest Biofuels Will Fail to Meet Targets
By Union of Concerned Scientists
February 3, 2010
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new rules for the Renewable Fuel Standard, the nation’s primary biofuels program, got a favorable review from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The science group praised the agency for a transparent process that accurately accounted for biofuels’ lifecycle heat-trapping emissions by including so-called “indirect-land-use emissions.” The new rules reflect the fact that advanced and cellulosic biofuels deliver substantially greater pollution reductions than today’s biofuels, such as corn ethanol.
“We now have a yardstick to measure the global warming pollution from different biofuels,” said Jeremy Martin, a senior scientist in UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program. “EPA should be congratulated for having an open process on this rule that involved scientists, farmers and the ethanol industry.”
Despite intense pressure from the corn ethanol industry to exclude emissions from indirect-land-use change, the EPA found that such emissions are a major source of heat-trapping pollution from corn ethanol and other food-based biofuels. This finding affirms the view of 200 scientists and economists with relevant expertise who sent a letter to the EPA in September 2009 arguing that “grappling with the technical uncertainty and developing a regulation based on the best available science is preferable to ignoring a major source of emissions.” The EPA also issued an analysis examining the scientific uncertainty involved in calculating emissions from indirect-land-use change and plans to ask the National Academy of Sciences to look at the issue.
Indirect-land-use-change emissions also have been the focus of recent analysis by the California Air Resources Board, as well as peer-review scientific articles, which concluded that using food crops to produce fuel increases worldwide demand for those crops, prompting farmers to clear previously untouched land to grow new crops. Clearing land, especially tropical forests, releases massive amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
The Renewable Fuel Standard, enacted in 2005, requires fuel suppliers to blend a higher percentage of renewable fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, into motor vehicle fuels over time. In 2007, Congress passed the “Energy Independence and Security Act,” which expanded the standard’s overall volume requirement from 7.5 million gallons by 2012 to 36 billion gallons by 2022, and significantly increased the requirement for low-carbon cellulosic biofuels. It also required the EPA to establish independent volume mandates for different fuel categories. Each category was to be defined by its lifecycle heat-trapping emissions compared with conventional gasoline. The categories include: renewable fuel (20 percent less emissions than gasoline), biomass-based diesel (50 percent less), advanced biofuels (50 percent less), and cellulosic biofuels (60 percent less).
Corn ethanol facilities that were operating or under construction in 2007 are exempt from meeting the emissions-reduction requirements. The EPA projects that new corn ethanol facilities coming on line in 2022 could meet the 20 percent heat-trapping emissions reduction threshold for renewable fuels. However, this analysis is based on projected increases in crop yields and improvements in ethanol production technology and is not an analysis of the performance of today’s corn ethanol facilities.
UCS experts say cellulosic ethanol, derived from grass, wood chips and other waste material, is a better option. According to EPA analysis, ethanol made from corn residue, or stalks and cobs, could reduce emissions by more than 90 percent compared with gasoline, in part because it would not necessarily displace land used to grow food crops and therefore would not trigger significant indirect land use emissions.
Cellulosic fuel production, however, has fallen short of the EPA target. The 2007 energy law required suppliers to produce 100 million gallons of cellulosic fuel in 2010. But current cellulosic ethanol production stands at only 6.5 million gallons. Therefore, the EPA announced today that it is waiving 93.5 million gallons of the 100 million gallon requirement.
“Achieving energy security and tackling climate change will require a big contribution from cellulosic fuels,” said Martin. “Just setting a goal isn’t good enough in this economy. We need investment policies that help this industry get off the ground.”
According to UCS, the most important thing federal legislators could do to meet the Renewable Fuel Standard’s goals would be to support investment in building commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel facilities across the country. An investment in this essential clean energy technology would jumpstart rural economies and expand the economic benefits of biofuels production.