Even as President-elect Joe Biden pushes for electric vehicles, the biofuel industry argues he can also make progress on his climate goals by expanding biofuel usage mandates, embracing a low carbon fuel policy and increasing vehicle emissions standards.
Biden has set a climate goal of net zero emissions by no later than 2050. His climate plan calls for deploying over 500,000 new public charging stations for electric vehicles by 2030 as well as producing next-generation biofuels by turning grass, crop residues, and other biomass into fuel.
But American Coalition for Ethanol CEO Brian Jennings said conventional biofuels should be part of the solution, too, when the new administration takes over later this month.
“The RFS has made an important down payment with regard to bringing down greenhouse gas emissions,” Jennings told Agri-Pulse. “We plan to be incredibly active in those discussions in pointing out how corn ethanol today reduces greenhouse gases by approximately 50% compared to gasoline.”
Jennings was referring to a Department of Agriculture study published in 2019. The study found corn ethanol's greenhouse gas profile was 39% to 43% lower than gasoline and could even be 47% by 2022. The updated study was based off an Environmental Protection Agency analysis in 2010 of GHG emissions associated with corn production.
Kurt Kovarik, vice president of federal affairs at the National Biodiesel Board, said continuing to grow volume requirements in the RFS for biodiesel also will be critical in lowering greenhouse gases.
“Across the board, whether it's produced from soybean oil, animal fats, used cooking oil, or distillers corn oil, (biodiesel) is anywhere from 65% to 85% better than petroleum in terms of reducing carbon emissions,” Kovarik told Agri-Pulse.
Kovarik and other industry officials say the Biden administration needs to start off by fully enforcing the existing Renewable Fuel Standard.
“If you look at the first 100 days, there’s going to be an opportunity and responsibility on the EPA side, a host of actions around the Renewable Fuel Standard, and we need to restore integrity to the RFS,” Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor told Agri-Pulse. Skor said that includes boosting annual volume requirements and denying 66 small refinery petitions pending from compliance years dating as far back as 2011.
But Skor, Kovarik and other biofuel advocates are also pushing for some version of California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard to be implemented at a federal level.
The LCFS was created to decrease carbon intensity in the transportation fuel sector and requires several different types of low-carbon and renewable alternatives, according to the California Air Resources Board.
While admitting it would be difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to enact LCFS on the federal level, Jennings said one small step could be reversing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that were rolled back by the Trump administration.
These standards regulate how far passenger cars and light-duty vehicles must travel on a gallon of fuel, according to the National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration.
“As the Biden EPA revises and rewrites those, they could make sure that higher octane fuel plays a role, for example. They could ensure that a higher-octane, low carbon fuel plays a role,” Jennings said.
Raising those standards could encourage the sales of more engines that run on higher-octane fuel, which would essentially push refiners to add higher levels of ethanol to gasoline.
“A properly designed fuel economy standard includes incentives or requirements for raising the octane content of our nation’s gasoline that then enables automakers to build higher compression ratio engines,” Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper told Agri-Pulse.
Cooper said automakers should also be encouraged and incentivized to build internal combustion engines that can get the most fuel economy in terms of emissions reductions. But he noted that only happens if there is an incentive for the right fuels for those vehicles and technologies.
He said it is critical to understand that the auto manufacturing and fuel industries work as a system, not separately.
While high-compression engines may sound like a good solution for the biofuel industry, Tristan Brown, an energy resource economics professor at the State University of New York, is skeptical there will be much progress made in the next decade because of a push for increased electric vehicle use.
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“I don’t see them pursuing both avenues at the same time,” Brown told Agri-Pulse. “A high-compression engine might provide some support over the next five to ten years for climate targets, but are automakers really going to invest in that?”
A key part of Biden’s plan to reach net zero emissions in 30 years is by increasing charging station capacity for electric vehicles across the country.
Biden has nominated several officials who have prior government experience serving under former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton and should be able to hit the ground running. In December, Biden announced that he would nominate former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to return to his post, as well as Michael Regan, the Department of Environmental Quality director in North Carolina, as his pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
Brown said the Biden administration could focus on using the existing RFS to help meet its climate goals. After 2022, the RFS volume obligations will no longer be specified by Congress and be fully under EPA’s discretion.
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