EPA Targets: Win or Loss in U.S. Biofuel Policy?

EPA Targets: Win or Loss in U.S. Biofuel Policy?

Since the 2005 creation of the Renewable Fuel Standard, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—under the Clean Air Act (CAA)—is required to set annual biofuel volume standards for fuels produced or imported into the United States. Biofuels, or fuels produced from crops like corn and soybeans, don’t get much attention as an alternative fuel source in the United States as compared to natural gas or electricity. But when the policy remains controversial, they should.

As of May 28, 2015, the EPA proposed higher standards for biofuel blending volumes for years 2014 to 2017. The new regulations also proposed increased volumes of biomass-based diesel in 2017. Due to criticism by Congress, farmers, and the oil industry, the EPA defended their decision mid-June by stating that the targets are “ambitious but responsible.” Furthermore, the EPA acknowledged targets would be reset in a mere two years anyway.

While at first glance the issue might only appeal to those engrossed in the policy and economics of energy law, new blend requirements for biofuels undoubtedly affect our decision to purchase alternative fuel or flex-fuel vehicles in the future—and where we can find fuel for purchase in varying economic and environmental landscapes.

The EPA has already proposed standards unfeasible for the US since 2005 due to their higher relative prices in most of the US and the need for alternative vehicles. New increased standards are therefore puzzling.

Why does the EPA continue to promote these controversial fuels? Policymakers and the EPA claim biofuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions as fossil fuel substitutes and promote energy independence. Increasing standards for biofuel blending is the EPA’s attempt to secure a market for renewable fuels in the US; however, according to a Washington Post article, actors ranging from farmers and ethanol producers to traditional fuel refiners are not happy with increased standards, claiming the EPA is putting the industry’s agenda before farmers.

Now we can add the environment to the list, as the majority of biofuel debate stems from how “renewable” a renewable fuel can really be when derived from crops grown with resource-intensive (i.e. water) processes. Surprisingly, but also expected due to the biofuel-conventional fuel competition, oil-rich states with conservative stances are asking if the consequences to the environment would be worth it.

Side effects of biofuel production in terms of energy and water used cannot be ignored (see Searchinger et al.). Using biofuels for a company’s vehicle fleets could give brownie (or should I say, “greenie”) points for commitment to alternative energy, only to use more resources than initially assumed with biofuel use.

So where does a state like Texas come into this? Recent southern flooding aside, few states have the environment to grow industry-scale crops for biofuels outside of the Corn Belt. Texas, as the leading biodiesel producer reliant on soybeans, will not foster more crop growth of traditional biofuel feedstock due to water shortages. Adding “fuel” to the fire, the import of feedstock for biofuel production is expensive and uses large amounts of energy. Bring the oil and gas lobby into the picture, combined with currently low gas prices at the pump, and promotion of these renewable fuels on a local level appears destined to fail.

Another aspect of biofuel policy in the United States to consider is the influx of biofuels derived from crop wastes as opposed to food crops themselves. Fuels derived from plant husks and cellulosic wastes from food crops do appear more sustainable, as more viable land and ecosystems would not be converted for more crops. Growing plants also provides the benefit of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, another positive externality.

However, we should take a step back to consider whether or not energy from or relating to food crops is the most responsible means as opposed to electric or hydro-powered cars. In many cases, biofuels release various pollutants when burned that can be worse than CO2, such as nitrogen dioxide in non-attainment areas.

The EPA will take final action on their newest proposal by November 30, 2015, but is currently open to public comment. For exact volume requirements proposed, refer to the EPA’s Regulatory Announcement.

Nozzle image via EarthTimes.org

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