On the Road to Better Biofuels

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new standard gives farmers and green industries needed guidance alongside necessary scientific review, writes Jake Caldwell

A field of jatropha plants that is a source of biofuel. The trees cost $6 to $7 each, can be grown 400 to an acre, and produce more than two gallons of oil apiece each season at maturity. (AP/Alan Diaz)
A field of jatropha plants that is a source of biofuel. The trees cost $6 to $7 each, can be grown 400 to an acre, and produce more than two gallons of oil apiece each season at maturity. (AP/Alan Diaz)

Last week President Barack Obama announced three key initiatives to build the infrastructure that we need to increase biofuel production, improve nationwide efforts in the development of biofuels, and lessen our dependence on oil. The announcements will make it much easier for growers of renewable energy sources and green industries that process the biofuels to plan ahead and help our nation create more jobs in the green sector of the economy, and strive toward energy independence and a cleaner environment

The Obama administration newly released Renewable Fuel Standard implements a mandate imposed by Congress in the 2007 energy bill and requires biofuels production to grow to 36 billion gallons by 2022 from 11.1 billion gallons in 2009. Significantly, 21 billion gallons of this total must come from advanced biofuels. Traditional biofuels such as corn will account for only 15 billion gallons. Any additional biofuels must achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 20 percent less than the gasoline being displaced by biofuels.

The Obama administration also announced a more comprehensive approach to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which will allow farmers to earn income from growing switchgrass and other advanced biofuel feedstocks, and an overall strategic biofuels roadmap that ensures the efforts of several federal agencies are better coordinated as we build a low-carbon fuel future.

In combination with an economywide price on carbon pollution—the other critical piece of President Obama’s comprehensive energy plan—the EPA’s new Renewable Fuel Standard will act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reinforce a predictable price signal that will drive innovation and investment to produce cleaner fuels, reward farmers, create jobs in the United States, and deliver more renewable energy in the transportation sector.

These new standards and comprehensive strategy will help diversify our transportation energy needs, and create a greater role for the next generation of advanced biofuels, while providing a critical bridge to the current generation of biofuels. The United States must reduce our dependence on oil. In order to cut our oil consumption and enhance our national security we must meet the challenge of oil use in the transportation sector head-on. The transportation sector alone is 95 percent dependent on oil and surface transportation is responsible for 65 percent of oil use in the United States. One-fifth of the oil consumed in the United States is imported from nations that are "dangerous or unstable" for travelers according to the State Department

In transportation, using less oil in cars and trucks provides the biggest near-term opportunity for oil reductions. There are a number of important measures to reduce oil use, including significantly more efficient fuel economy standards, investments in public transportation and high speed rail, and the production and use of alternative fuels, including natural gas and advanced biofuels. Each of these steps can increase our nation’s energy independence by reducing oil use by millions of barrels.

Biofuels are part of the solution to our transportation liquid fuel challenge. Advanced, cellulosic biofuels—made from agricultural waste, wood chips, or low-input crops such as switchgrass—hold great promise to reduce oil use and greenhouse gas pollution. Biofuels that deliver measurable lifecycle greenhouse gas reductions, minimize the use of food-based feedstocks, and reduce public health and environmental impacts should be encouraged.

Nonetheless, in order to capture the promise of advanced biofuels, we must also make the short-term investments in the infrastructure needs of the current generation of biofuels. The latest Renewable Fuel Standard is a step in the direction we eventually want to go. It rewards the performance characteristics of biofuels—those produced in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with the gasoline they displace—and not simply a standard based on the sheer volume of production levels.

The next generation of biofuels that are potentially part of the solution include cellulosic ethanol—which is less energy intensive and can be made from agricultural plants and waste—or dedicated crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus, or even noncrops such as algae (if carbon pollution from production can be reduced). Another key source for biofuels with low lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions is municipal waste, which is largely disposed of today.

Significantly, the Environmental Protection Agency in issuing the new Renewable Fuel Standard recognizes that the science and methodologies used in the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions evaluation process are evolving and will require constant improvement and updating as more information on the emissions of various fuels and feedstocks becomes available. The issue of indirect land use and the difficulties associated with ascertaining the impact of biofuel production in the United States on land use in other countries has been addressed and updated.

EPA took advantage of better land use information from more countries, improved data on crop yield and productivity, and increased information on co-products from biofuels, to provide a better picture of the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of most biofuels. EPA has begun the hard work of developing an accounting tool to ensure lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels are verifiable and balanced, and these are welcome revisions.

Legitimate concerns regarding the need for more scientific data to constantly inform the lifecycle greenhouse gas analysis have been expressed by the existing biofuels industry and must be taken into account. The National Academy of Science is now studying the lifecycle greenhouse gas issue. Public health concerns related to potential increased smog in certain regions as a result of increased biofuel use also must be addressed.

EPA says it is committed to incorporating the latest scientific data while performing constant reviews and updates of the standards. They should be held to this commitment. At the same time, measuring the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from all biofuels is a critical component of ensuring a better transportation fuel future and must be encouraged.

The United States boasts a strong foundation on which to build a low-carbon fuel future. Existing energy and farm legislation contains numerous programs that can further this effort, including USDA’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program and several existing grant programs. In the short term, the announcements this week will enable the United States to reward more farmers with new income for their contributions to lessening our dependence on oil through incentives to grow energy crops in the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. This is real money in the pocketbooks of farmers and producers.

The announced performance incentives of the Renewable Fuel Standard, and the new biofuels strategy is a good step toward coordinating and accelerating the research, development, and deployment at commercial scale of sustainable biofuels among all federal, state, and private sector actors. The end result: increased production of advanced biofuels that reward farmers and producers, deliver measurable lifecycle greenhouse gas reductions, adhere to environmental safeguards, and create jobs here at home. The biofuels initiatives announced last week represent progress in the right direction toward a clean transportation future.

Jake Caldwell is Director of Policy for Agriculture, Energy, and Trade at the Center for American Progress. To read more about the Center’s policy recommendations and analysis please go to the Energy and Opportunity page of our website.

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