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Renewable Fuel Standard Ready for an Overhaul?

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Energy & Environment
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Last week, a coalition of environmental groups led by Mighty Earth urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce production mandates for food crop-based biofuels. In recent the years, the EPA has called for incremental boosts in annual biofuel production, including 1.928 trillion gallons this year. The coalition voiced its concerns as the EPA announced the conclusion of a comment period inviting feedback from the business community and the general public. The EPA has proposed a modest 40 million gallon decrease in volume for bio-based transport fuel for 2018.

But according to former U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, who now leads a consulting firm that includes groups such as Mighty Earth, more cuts in biofuels production are advised. He insists that the environmental promises promised by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program have failed to materialize. In fact, Waxman suggested that 10 years after the launch of RFS, its results may have resulted in more problems than solutions.

“In fact, we now believe that most food-based biofuels are a cure worse than the disease,” Waxman said during a conference call with media representative last Thursday.

Waxman explained that when the EPA first sought to ramp up the production of biofuels nationwide in 2007, “first generation,” or food-based biofuels, appeared to show potential as a way to mitigate climate change. Corn ethanol, along with biodiesel from soy and palm oil, were viewed by many environmental groups and energy companies as bridge to next-generation transportation fuels could scale – while avoiding any competition for land and resources with food crops. Energy companies have since been required to mix conventional fossil transportation fuel with a minimum volume of these plant-derived fuels.

A decade later, however, Waxman believes the promises of biofuels have fallen short, and their problems extend beyond climate change. “We can see the impact of biofuels’ enormous growth as a driver of more conversion of more and more acres of our last remaining prairie into corn and soy monocultures,” said Waxman.

The former Los Angeles-based representative also noted that biofuels derived from feedstocks such as palm oil have led to greater deforestation as agribusiness companies and farmers have converted more land into farmland. Mighty Earth, along with other environmental groups such as the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), have called out many global companies for what they claim is their role in accelerating deforestation worldwide, from Brazil to Gabon to Indonesia.

Other organizations, from the U.S. federal government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) to the NGO Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have criticized the RFS and concluded that the program is falling short of its goals. “It is unlikely that the goals of the RFS will be met because production of advanced biofuels is limited, as is the potential for expanding their production by 2022,” the GAO announced late last year.

It is highly doubtful that the Trump White House will consider the concerns of Mighty Earth and its allies. While the president has overall been a harsh critic of clean energy, he has had a far more nuanced view of biofuels – not surprising, with Bloomberg’s analysis that of the 184 counties with an ethanol plant in the U.S., 95 percent of them voted for Trump last November. Although his administration has been accused of creating uncertainty in the biofuels markets, Trump himself has been a steady and vocal proponent of corn ethanol.

Nevertheless, Waxman insists the RFS needs reform. “We’d like to have second-generation, ultra-low carbon fuels, but what we actually have is corn ethanol and soy and palm biodiesel,” Waxman said. “These food-based fuels offer no climate emissions advantages and contribute to the conversion of native habitats for agricultural production.”

Image credit: Carl Wycoff/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

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