Biofuels Producers Seek Role In Providing Near-Term, Low-GHG Fuels

February 3, 2021

Biofuels advocates are seeking to carve out a role for their industry as a provider of near-term cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, pressing the Biden EPA to allow higher ethanol blends in motor fuel as the administration balances its support of biofuels with a push to greatly expand the use of electric vehicles (EVs).

In a Feb. 2 interview with Inside EPA, Emily Skor, CEO of biofuels group Growth Energy, outlined her organization’s vision of boosting ethanol and other biofuels to provide a ready means of achieving quick GHG cuts, using existing vehicles and infrastructure.

“The more biofuels we use, the more we reduce GHGs,” said Skor, downplaying the possible consequences of a large expansion in EV use that might diminish the overall market for liquid fuels. The biofuels sector stands ready to help the Biden team meet its climate goals, Skor said. “We are eager to partner and help him and his team.”

“We don’t look at this as an either/or, we are going to need both” biofuels and EVs to achieve ambitious climate goals, Skor said. “There is no one silver bullet.”

Skor’s remarks echo comments made by President Joe Biden’s nominee for Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, who told a Feb. 2 nomination hearing by the Senate Agriculture Committee that “I don't think it's an either/or circumstance. I think there's an opportunity to advance both.”

Vilsack added: “The reality is that General Motors and Ford and all of those other car companies, they're not going to stop producing combustion engines. . . . So, we need an alternative fuel source in addition to and to complement our efforts” on EVs. “I don't see why we can't have both and, over a long period of time, we're going to need both.”

Despite the administration’s multiple plans to put many more EVs on the road, Skor says the “vast majority” of cars are going to continue to use liquid fuels, at least in the medium term. “There is still a lot in the short- and medium-term that we can achieve” with biofuels, including with conventional corn starch ethanol, where the industry continues to make strides in reducing lifecycle GHG emissions.

That prospect of fast GHG reductions without massive investments in infrastructure is supporting a biofuels sector push to expand use of higher ethanol blends, and to “expand the role of biofuels in clean energy.” EVs, in contrast, would depend on a huge network of charging stations that is only now in its infancy.

The “low-hanging fruit” for the Biden EPA is to ease sales of 15 percent ethanol fuel (E15), Skor says. The Trump EPA already authorized year-round sales of E15, but uptake of the fuel has been limited. EPA could help by eliminating “a few bureaucratic red tape issues,” such as those relating to fuel storage equipment and pump labeling requirements.

Shortly before leaving office Jan. 20, the Trump EPA proposed “to either modify the E15 label or remove the label requirement entirely and [was] seeking comment on whether state and local governments may be preempted from requiring different labels on fuel dispensers."

Further, EPA is proposing to modify the underground storage tank (UST) regulations “to grant certain allowances for compatibility demonstration for storage of ethanol blends. EPA is also proposing compatibility requirements for future UST installations or component replacements that would ensure compatibility with higher blends of ethanol,” the agency said. The Biden EPA will now have to consider what to do with those proposals. The agency is taking comment on the plan until April 19.

Lifecycle Analysis

Skor also says EPA should tighten vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and deploy biofuels to help meet those stricter standards. The ethanol industry has long advocated use of higher ethanol blends, such as E25 or E30, to provide higher octane ratings in fuel, which in turn would allow more-efficient engines that attain greater GHG savings.

To support the case for an expanded role for biofuel, Growth Energy is among the groups promoting a new study from David MacIntosh, chief science officer of Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc. and adjunct environmental health professor at Harvard University. The study, published Jan. 20 in Environmental Research Letters, says ethanol’s lifecycle GHGs are 46 percent lower than those of gasoline, a greater reduction than previously thought.

Growth Energy’s immediate priority is defending the integrity of the renewable fuel standard (RFS), which requires that refiners blend increasing quantities of biofuel into the fuel supply according to volumes prescribed by Congress. The industry is seeking to persuade EPA not to issue numerous economic hardship waivers from the RFS for small refiners, as the Trump administration did.

Statutory targets, however, expire in 2023, leaving EPA to set them under its own authority in subsequent years, without having to use waiver authorities to depart from statutory numbers. EPA is already setting biomass-based diesel volumes on its own authority, as statutory volumes for this fuel category have expired. Growth Energy and other biofuels supporters will therefore press EPA to establish favorable levels of blending volumes in the future, Skor said.

Also, Skor says that biofuels groups would support a national low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS), so long as it complements rather than replaces the RFS and does not discriminate against biofuels in any way. California’s existing LCFS is largely satisfied through biofuel, Skor notes.

Growth Energy’s approach appears to contrast with the fears of some in the biofuels sector that the federal government might privilege EVs over biofuel, as some environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers have sought. For example, in a Jan. 26 speech during the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit, Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association (IRFA), said, “Coastal elites are trying to dictate our energy future.” He said his group “believes it would be a major mistake to sit back and let the coasts drive the energy debate. Midwestern states like Iowa need to aggressively carve out a role for biofuels in this region before it’s too late.”

In an email response to Inside EPA, a spokesperson for IFRA says, however, that this warning is not directed at Biden or his support for EVs. “Monte acknowledges that EVs will continue to play a growing role in our nation’s transportation sector, but he calls for a level playing field in which policymakers set carbon reduction goals and then let technologies, be it EVs or biofuels, compete fairly,” the spokesperson says.

Rather, Shaw’s comments were directed against moves such as draft legislation in the last Congress, and a recent order by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), that would mandate increases in EV use, but not biofuels, to meet climate goals, the spokesperson said. Vehicle electrification cannot be the only solution, the spokesperson says. Shaw is further concerned by “those trying to make biofuels look bad in state LCFS programs by giving biofuels ‘penalties’ for things like indirect land use change that are not supported by science.” -- Stuart Parker (sparker@ipwnews.com)

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