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EPA's Balancing Act

Brian Siu

Posted February 26, 2013

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The transportation sector uses 71% of the nation’s petroleum.  Petroleum is also our largest source of carbon pollution. In that context, developing biofuels for transportation makes good sense. They can potentially provide low carbon sources of liquid fuel for ground transport and aviation. 

Still, creating tens of billions of gallons of transportation grade fuel from biomass requires constant discipline and scrutiny. Grown irresponsibly, these fuels can wipe out biodiversity, impact food security and increase carbon pollution.  So while we cannot afford to write off biofuels, we must not trivialize the risks either.  It’s a difficult line to walk and some understandably question whether it can be done at all.  Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has demonstrated that it has the judgment and expertise to strike balance when it’s needed. Last week, the agency finalized a rule under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that adopts beneficial changes while rejecting harmful ones.

The RFS is the nation’s anchor alternative fuels policy, requiring refiners to gradually increase use of renewable fuel and setting environmental standards that encourage innovation and the development of next-generation biofuels.  For nearly a year, the EPA has been devising a rule to qualify additional fuel technologies for the program.  But the original proposal was a mixed bag.  To EPA’s credit, the rule would allow producers of biomass based jet fuel to earn and sell Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which oil companies then use to comply with RFS volume mandates.  The aviation sector is highly sensitive to petroleum prices yet has limited alternative options—unlike our cars, measures like electrification aren't foreseeably available.  Emerging forms of sustainable drop-in biofuel can fill this gap, eventually giving air carriers a tool to manage both cost and environmental performance.  EPA’s final rule retains this provision, simultaneously helping the aviation and biofuel sectors by encouraging biojet producers to enter the market.  

However, EPA’s original rule contained several harmful features as well.  For instance, it would have qualified several invasive species under the RFS.  Approving these feedstocks would have exposed surrounding ecosystems to substantial environmental risk that could have eroded the program’s credibility and political support. Fortunately, the final rule does not include these feedstocks. While EPA will return to these issues separately, its latest rule gives us confidence that it understands the weight of these decisions. 

As EPA administers the RFS, it must continuously monitor and optimize the program. It must make good on its public commitment to periodically refine and reevaluate its feedstock assessments as biofuel volumes, agricultural markets and environmental trends evolve over time.  This is far from easy, but it is an inherent reality of producing tremendous volumes of biomass based fuel in a constantly changing world. The latest rule illustrates that EPA is up to the task.  For now, EPA should be commended for its hard work and willingness to separate the good from the risky.  We hope that this work will continue as we chart a course for globally sustainable biofuels one step at a time. 

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