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EPA makes ethanol decision that ticks off both sides

By   /   November 30, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

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NOBODY’S HAPPY NOW: A decision Monday by EPA regarding the Renewable Fuel Standard pleased neither supporters nor critics of the mandate.

The Environmental Protection Agency got a two-fer on Monday: It made a decision on ethanol that angered both sides of the debate concerning one of the federal government’s most controversial mandates.

The mandated amount of renewable fuels will rise, but not as much as originally announced.

As part of the Renewable Fuel Standard, billions of gallons of renewable fuels must be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply every year. The vast majority of the fuel used is corn-based ethanol.

For its supporters, ethanol is a valuable tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on oil. For critics, the RFS is unnecessary and ethanol requirements amount to a giveaway to Corn Belt states, especially Iowa, where presidential candidates travel to campaign for support in the Iowa caucus.

After delays, EPA came out Monday with requirements for renewable fuel volumes for 2014 through 2016 under the RFS.

Originally, 22.25 billion gallons of renewable fuel were to be blended by 2016.

EPA officials announced the mandated amount will be reduced to 18.11 billion gallons.

Chart provided by EPA

Chart provided by EPA

The new figure still represents an increase from previous years, a fact EPA officials were at pains to point out Monday afternoon.

“We know we need to continue to push the market so that lower greenhouse gas fuels get to consumers’ gas tanks,” said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

But McCabe acknowledged that advanced fuels “have not developed as fast as Congress anticipated” when the RFS was instituted in 2005 and bolstered in 2007.

EPA’s decision didn’t make supporters of the RFS happy, with one Iowa biofuels group calling it a “gut punch.”

Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, objected to EPA making changes to RFS fuel volumes by using “distribution waivers” instead of following its original plan.

“This is really an Obama administration rule,” Coleman told Watchdog.org. “They didn’t close the loopholes that allow oil companies to escape their obligations under the law.”

But the oil industry, long opposed to the RFS, wasn’t dancing a jig on Monday, either.

“EPA’s final rule relies on unrealistic increases in sales of higher ethanol fuel blends despite the fact that most cars cannot use them,” Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement. “Motorists have largely rejected these fuels.”

EPA’s announcement comes on the same day President Barack Obama appeared at the Paris climate summit, where he is keen to show that his administration is making strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But Coleman said Monday’s decision by EPA undercuts that message.

“When he ran, he was Mr. Biofuels,” Coleman said. “Now that the oil industry has puffed out its chest and said ‘we don’t want to do it,’ he’s changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

But when it comes to corn ethanol, a number of environmental groups are making at least as much noise in opposition as are oil companies.

A former employee at the Environmental Defense Fund, John DeCicco, now a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, argued earlier this month at a congressional hearing that ethanol does more environmental harm than good and that the assumptions behind enacting the RFS were wrong.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard has been harmful to the environment since its inception,” DeCicco said, adding the standard “has resulted in higher CO2 emissions than would have otherwise occurred.”

Some green groups say producing and harvesting corn used for ethanol gobbles up too much land and pollutes rivers and streams. Others say its development crowds out other alternative fuels.

A prominent Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, has co-sponsored legislation to take corn ethanol out of the RFS.

RELATED: The free market debate over the Renewable Fuel Standard

When the RFS came into existence, an increasing amount of ethanol was supposed to come from other sources besides corn, such as cellulosic biofuels — which come from organic and nonfood material such as switchgrass, wood chips and corn stalks — and biomass, but those markets have been slow to expand.

Opponents want the entire fuel standard eliminated.

“I’ve heard the same thing for years: We’re just six months away [from a breakthrough], we’re right around the corner,” Charlie Drevna, distinguished senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research and RFS critic, told Watchdog.org earlier this year.“Well, that’s a pretty damn wide corner because I haven’t seen much yet.”

The API’s Gerard said the “announcement makes clear that, in order to protect consumers, Congress must step in to repeal or significantly reform the RFS. Members on both sides of the aisle agree this program is a failure, and we are stepping up our call for Congress to act.”

But Coleman of the Advanced Ethanol Council said he’s not worried that the RFS will get repealed.

“The reality is, [opponents on Capitol Hill] don’t have anywhere near the votes to even get close to a repeal,” Coleman said. “[Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell has said it’s a divisive issue for Republicans. That’s because there are 210 ethanol plants, there’s another hundred or so biodiesel plants. You’re talking about a real industry.”


Rob formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.