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Old, Dirty Ethanol Must Innovate Not Litigate

Roland Hwang

Posted January 14, 2010

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Though disappointed, I’m hardly surprised that some in the ethanol industry have chosen litigation over innovation. While not all ethanol is created equal, this lawsuit is about old, dirty ethanol’s attempt to stifle competition from newer, cleaner sources of fuels that can be produced right here in the U.S.. By choosing lawyers over engineers, old, dirty ethanol is headed down the same disastrous road Detroit took when it sued California over its seminal Clean Car Law (sometimes known as the Pavley Program).

Some quick background to the lawsuit. In April of 2009, the California Air Resources Board adopted the latest in a series of common sense standards to cut global warming pollution and steer the existing energy industries to a cleaner, more sustainable path. Predictably, the old, dirty ethanol industry filed both federal and state lawsuits last December. In contrast, other companies that are developing, newer, cleaner ways to make biofuels support the California program.

This first in the nation program, called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS, originally proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger in January 2007), requires the oil industry to reduce the carbon pollution from its products by an average of 1 percent per year for the next 10 years. The LCFS gives fair treatment to all fuels based on their pollution performance – it does not single out any particular fuel or industry. Like all pollution standards, it simply rewards cleaner fuels and penalizes the dirtier fuels.

The LCFS is the only standard in the country that will force the oil industry to provide a suite of cleaner fuels, including electricity, hydrogen and advanced biofuels.  Needless to say, victory for old, dirty ethanol on this lawsuit would be a huge victory for Big Oil too.  In fact, the oil industry recently launched through a well-known front group (the Consumer Energy Alliance whose members include American Petroleum Institute, BP, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell Oil and others) a national campaign whose sole goal is to defeat LCFS proposals in other states and in Congress.

The old, dirty ethanol industry is dominated by big companies like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Poet. It’s baffling why an industry that benefits from $4 billion a year in government subsidies can’t find a way to compete on environmental merits. Increased production efficiencies, using more of the corn plant, and switching to cleaner fuels in its refineries are all known ways to make current ethanol cleaner. Advanced ethanol, made from waste materials and other more sustainable feedstocks, promise even greater reductions.

California drivers are already spending roughly $375 million a year subsidizing the 950 million gallons of ethanol that is currently blended into our gasoline supply. The LCFS is critical part of the state’s overall strategy to cut global warming pollution, reduce our dangerous dependency on oil, and to unleash clean fuels innovation. Global warming unchecked will worsen our air quality, threatens our coastline with rising sea levels, and diminishes our water supply by shrinking snow packs. To protect our health and our economy, Californians should demand more in return from the old, dirty ethanol industry than lawsuits and excuses for why it can’t compete in a clean energy economy.

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Brooke ColemanJan 16 2010 09:08 AM


With all due respect, this post does nothing to illuminate the issue for people.

The biofuels industry widely supported the LCFS until NRDC and others supported different rules for different fuels. More specifically, biofuels ("old" and advanced) pay for an extra category of carbon emissions not levied against any other fuel, never before regulated in any way, and having the outcome of increasing the carbon score of all biofuels by 40-200%.

Both the conventional and advanced biofuels industry asked for one simple thing: consistency. If you want to penalize biofuels for what are called market-mediated ripple effects, then do the same for oil, natural gas, electricity and hydrogen. It is patently absurd to suggest that using biofuels will cause ripple effects in the economy, but using these other fuels will not.

But NRDC opposed parity, and spun this regulation as balanced (again above), at every level. NRDC and others have allowed what could have been a great regulation with widespread support turn into a controversial regulation with blatant inconsistencies, biases and now legal challenge.

Readers also need to realize that this post misrepresents the public record: (1) some of the plaintiffs are also leaders in the advanced biofuels effort; (2) the record shows that a wide range of stakeholders, from scientists to environmental groups to dozens of advanced biofuel companies with no stake in corn to cleantech investors with no stake in corn, waved the red flag about the approach supported by NRDC.

If people want to be disappointed by something, consider NRDC's position is all of this. They had the expertise and resources to lead California down a better path, and didnt. Now we have the inevitable: lawsuits.

Finally, you make a totally misleading statement about this lawsuit benefitting oil companies. Roland, oil companies supported this regulation. Check the record.

As someone advocating for advanced biofuels via the New Fuels Alliance, nothing has been more disappointing than NRDC's position. NRDC should stop advocating for fixing the numbers and then we all can get to the business of making this a national regulation.

If people want support for my statements, start here:

Tim GerlachJan 18 2010 09:28 PM

Two questions for Roland:
1) Do you truly believe ethanol as it is produced today is more of an environmental concern than petroleum-based fuels (conventional or tar sand varieties)? CARB disadvantages Midwest ethanol and has essentially stacked the formula against ethanol in favor of oil.

2) Have you visited/toured a modern ethanol plant in the last few years so your readers might have some gauge on your understanding of the people/process you are bashing?

Tim GerlachJan 19 2010 06:49 PM


* 5 days and counting since your blog.

* 2 comments; both call your coverage of the topic into question.

* No response yet from you.

Remember it is 'new media.' It's quick and 24/7. If you're going to issue low-on-fact hit & run spin, at least update it once in a while.

Proud supporter of closer-to-home, farmer-grown,enviromentally friendly,American-made biofuels,


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