Monday, May 23, 2016

Latest tweak to U.S. biofuel mandate is politically correct and ecologically cruel

EPA's new Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) proposal modestly increases the amount of biofuel that America's cars and trucks have to consume next year but still keeps the total renewable fuel mandate below the Congressionally scripted target.

In the plan released on May 18, ordinary corn ethanol gets a 300 million gallon boost, biodiesel is bumped up by 100 million gallons and other so-called advanced biofuels see a 200 million gallon increase compared to last year's regulation. Nevertheless, the proposed 18.8 billion gallon total remains significantly lower than the 24 billion gallon goal for renewable fuel in 2017 that Congress wrote into law back in 2007.

EPA's approach reflects a compromise worked out last year after several tortuous years of regulatory delay. This "politically correct" strategy has the agency taking a middle road that balances the money-making interests of the biofuel industry and the corn and soybean lobbies against the engineering and economic realities that render ethanol and biodiesel such inferior motor fuels. Reactions to the proposal were predictable. The renewable fuel lobby and its allies complain "that's not enough" while the oil industry and other critics say "that's too much" biofuel.

But what's really been run off the road by the RFS is the environment. Contrary to the claims, increasing renewable fuel use is putting more CO2 into the air than using gasoline and diesel. In a cruel twist on EPA's mission to protect the environment, Congress codified a fuels mandate that is destined to hurt rather than help the planet.

This seeming contradiction can be traced to another aspect of Congressional overreach. When expanding the RFS, the legislators told EPA to use lifecycle assessment (LCA) for administering the policy. LCA is a popular way to calculate the "carbon footprint" of fuels or other products. The method is quite elaborate; however, it's only semi-scientific. That's because its results depend at least as much on the assumptions baked into LCA computer models as they do on hard data.

Unfortunately, many environmentalists and green-leaning academics embrace LCA as the best way to evaluate the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions impacts of different fuels. Too bad they haven't taken to heart the guidelines given by the International Standards Organization (ISO) for use of the method, which state that "there is no scientific basis for reducing LCA results to a single overall score or number, since weighting requires value choices."

Yet that's exactly what the law requires EPA to do. With the RFS, Congress mandated a regulation that imposes politically convenient "value choices" when weighing the factors that shape how carbon footprint calculations come out. The program is an anomaly compared to the scientifically clear-cut standards conventionally used to regulate fuels. For example, octane requirements, volatility specifications and limits on the sulfur in a fuel all involve properties than can be verified by purely objective measurements.

It's therefore no surprise that there's been such disagreement over the merits of biofuels for so many years. The question of a fuel's carbon footprint is not one that can ever be settled on the basis of objective data.

However, science can tell us when biofuel production might be plausibly helpful for protecting the climate. That can only occur if growing a biofuel's feedstock greatly speeds up how quickly CO2 is removed from the air on a net basis. But this beneficial balance doesn't happen for the corn ethanol and the soybean biodiesel that the RFS forces through America's fuel pumps in greater volumes each year. Although it might happen for some hoped-for cellulosic pathways if their feedstock production is carefully monitored and managed, these technologies are nowhere close to being viable at commercially meaningful scale.

This reality gap is clear in EPA's newest RFS proposal. In contrast to the 5.5 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels that Congress mandated for 2017, EPA proposes 312 million gallons -- less than one-tenth as much. Moreover, just as we've seen for several years, very little of that fuel is actually cellulosic ethanol or other liquid biofuel. Much of it is biogas derived from waste. Now that may be a nice enough specialty fuel at a miniscule scale, but it's irrelevant for addressing the need for billions of gallons of high-quality, carefully formulated liquid fuels to power the nation's cars, trucks, aircraft and watercraft.

So here we are, eleven years and counting since Congress made a politically convenient decision to mandate renewable fuel. The agency saddled with carrying out this act of central planning is trying to chart a course between the fantasies of biofuel advocates and the realities of the marketplace. But any such course is still an ecological calamity that worsens CO2 emissions while harming the environment in other ways.


  1. I disagree with this comment "That can only occur if growing a biofuel's feedstock greatly speeds up how quickly CO2 is removed from the air on a net basis." Based on the data from figure 5 in your recent article biofuels have replaced about 5% of the carbon that would have otherwise come from petroleum. There is no chemically reasonable way for the production of biofuels to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, the only thing biofuels can do is reduce the rate that petroleum is used. Even your data shows that biofuels do reduce the rate of petroleum usage. There are two things that have to be done to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. #1: Petroleum and other fossil fuels will need to decrease in usage. #2: Other technology or natural processes will need to absorb the excess carbon. Biofuels only help with #1. The statement you made above conflates two separate processes, and does not mean that biofuels don't have a place to aid atmospheric carbon reduction. That being said, the EPA should be doing more to reduce atmospheric carbon.

  2. "However, science can tell us when biofuel production might be plausibly helpful for protecting the climate. That can only occur if growing a biofuel's feedstock greatly speeds up how quickly CO2 is removed from the air on a net basis."

    That can also occur by preventing burning of fossil fuels, keeping us from adding extra carbon that could be left in the ground.

    Full replacement of fossil by bio fuels would mean no more increasing the CO2 levels in the atmosphere (provided land-use change is properly managed, of course, no soybean for forests).

    It is by no means as good as reducing CO2 levels. But damn it is some improvement over constantly increasing them