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The first step for Congress on climate, a big step on biofuels

Nathanael Greene

Posted December 14, 2007 in Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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Yesterday the Senate passed a historic energy bill that makes a much needed down payment on the global warming pollution reductions the United States needs to make to help avoid catastrophic climate change. (Here's NRDC's press release.) The bill is expected to be passed by the House early next week and the President has said he'll sign it.

These two quotes from this Washington Post article sum the story of the bill well:

"Could this bill have been better? Of course it could have," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), comparing it to a split decision in a boxing match. But he said it was still "a good bill."


Elizabeth Martin-Perera, climate policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "Congress should be congratulated for taking the first step in the sprint to solve global warming." But she added, "We're disappointed that there were some things left on the cutting-room floor."

My main area of involvement was the renewable fuel standard, which increased and extends the existing standard from requiring 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2012 to requiring 36 billion gallons by 2022. As importantly as the number the bill adopts the first ever global warming performance requirements and strict protections for sensitive lands.

I'll return to the details, but first it's important to acknowledge what an incredible team effort this was for the environmental community. While three of my colleagues (Jim Presswood, Franz Matzner, and Debbie Hammel) deserve particular credit, they worked hand in hand with experts from American Lung Association, Climate Action Network, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, NET, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and the Wilderness Society.

This broad coalition of groups started working together back in January of this year and together we tried to figure out what it would take to make biofuels a sustainable source of global warming reductions. We also watched the politics behind the renewable fuel standard heat up and jointly decided that we had to try to make the RFS as good as possible. We developed the performance standards and safeguards and won virtually all of them. Each of these groups will speak for themselves as to their opinion of the RFS and energy bill overall, but they deserve credit for starting to move our biofuels policies towards performance based policies and setting clear boundaries to help the biofuels industry develop on the green and narrow.

On the bill specifics, the 36 billion gallon requirement includes 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels, which are defined as renewable fuels other than ethanol produced from corn starch. 16 billion gallons of the advanced biofuels requirement comes from cellulosic biofuels, which are produced from plant material such as switchgrass or wood chips. The bill requires all of the biofuels to have lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions at least 20 percent less than gasoline. The advanced biofuels must all have emissions at least 50 percent less, and the cellulosic biofuels must have emissions at least 60 percent less. Importantly, we won wording changes that make the definition of lifecycle emissions broad enough to capture both the direct and indirect emissions caused by land-use change.

I believe that no provision will do more to protect fragile, carbon rich lands around the world, than the lifecycle standards, but we also won clear parameters for sustainable sourcing of biofuels feedstocks that guard against the loss of native forests and prairie. These provisions also protect threatened, imperiled, and endangered species and public lands. While additional safeguards are needed for biofuels (and all agriculture) to protect and preserve soil and water quality, the language in this bill takes a big step towards recognizing the broad range of impacts that biofuels can have if done carelessly.

Assuming these provisions are signed into law, we still have a lot of work cut out for us. While the energy bill is a down payment, it's not substitute for comprehensive mandatory carbon caps. Similarly on biofuels, the GHG standards are a big start, but we also need a low-carbon fuel standard to move beyond the minimum requirements established here. And of course how EPA actually implements the lifecycle emissions accounting is tremendously important and we're going to need to match the industry's resources to make sure the accounting is done on a rigorous, scientific basis. Finally, the land and feedstock safeguards won't mean anything unless we enforce them.

So a small, but important step for Congress and the US towards real climate policy, a big step on biofuels policy, but still just the first steps in what will be a long march.

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Ken DonnellyDec 16 2007 09:29 AM


Congrats to you and others on finally perhaps some limited first step actual credibility or worth (not just crop value support) for all Americans on ethanol, in addition to the other major changes (CAFÉ improvements) in the energy Act, even with the unfortunate trade off of deletion of the renewable electricity % guidelines to get it through the Senate.

To be clear though, the 20 % lifecycle GHG reduction % on "all biofuels" applies only to new facility biofuels. As you say the regulations by the EPA, which unfortunately if you read the original RFS regulatory impact statement seem to have become more of the Enabling Political Agency under the current administration than Environmental Protection Agency, will also be important?

The prior ethanol capacity "grandfathered" it seems ? of over 10 billion gallons I believe, in particular the coal based wet and dry ones, which as you know are in many cases actually GHG negative, will still be a major proportion of the total ethanol produced for some time. Some kind of remediation of these facilities over some fair period, say 2-3 years with some assistance wouldn't be unreasonable, but just leaving the largest portion of certain biofuels for almost the next 10 years or longer - let's face it most of the advanced or cellulosic (definitions?) only happen after 5 years, would be a shame.

To be clear a change to some performance basis and the other land use controls etc you note, even prospectively in a program that was primarily just a crop value support program, is a major accomplishment. But certainly some form of remediation of the mediocre and in many cases negative base would also allow much greater real pride in the ethanol program.

The continuing enigma on the base corn ethanol program is that with such a limited net energy creation (with corn's high energy intensity) and with any kind of energy cost parity it's a mediocre economic proposition. Of course, it would be much better in energy and environmental and even sustainable (not short term) economic terms terms, with biomass energy used in the production process.

Are there any current thoughts on how the subsidy will be addressed in 2009. Ideally if it was retained only for base production that was being remediated and programs with much better than mandated levels of net energy and GHG reductions, it could be a way to change the whole program even more for the better.

As a last comment, if the subsidy was somehow directed to the subject ethanol producers instead of the blenders it would also be very preferable. The recent inhibition of new ethanol capacity because of low margins, even if somewhat a blessing in the absence of performance standards, had as much to do with the oil industry controlling the blending of excess production and thus the whole ethanol production ay very discounted levels to fair value and effectively taking the ethanol subsidy. With the increased mandate ethanol prices should move up substantially.

Ken DonnellyDec 17 2007 12:08 AM

The final bill uses somewhat different terminology than earlier versions. While a little confusing it seems that the primary volumes are 21.0 million advanced biofuels and 15.0 million conventional (from corn starch) biofuels and cellulosic and diesel are effectively sub categories of advanced biofuels? As example in 2010 .65 diesel and .10 cellulosic are part of .95 advanced biofuels) and the indicated conventional biofuels are 12.0 million? Is this your interpretation?
2. While earlier the concept of weighting or volume conversion applied (e.g. 1 cellulosic as 2.5 and diesel counted as 1.5) this not mentioned in bill now? possibly conversion factors still apply ? And to be added in regulations but this was earlier crude attempt to measure performance so perhaps not?

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