EPA’s Science Advisory Board is moving toward softening language in a draft commentary that questioned the value of corn ethanol in combating climate change.

The ethanol industry has been critical of the commentary, which is in the form of a letter that will constitute the board’s advice to EPA Administrator Michael Regan once it is finalized.

At a meeting Thursday, the board agreed to let the workgroup that prepared the document finalize any revisions with SAB Chair Alison Cullen, adjunct professor in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. Cullen, not the full board, then would have the final say on any revisions.

The workgroup was assigned to examine volume requirements for the Renewable Fuel Standard. Its draft commentary said “it appears there is a reasonable chance there are minimal or no climate benefits from substituting corn ethanol for gasoline or diesel.”

The draft was roundly criticized by the industry and corn growers, who said it “cherry-picked” studies

"Years of peer-reviewed research from scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, [and] Environmental Health and Engineering have all concluded that today’s ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 50% compared to gasoline," Growth Energy Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Chris Bliley told the SAB today.

"Studies claiming otherwise consistently ignore hard data in favor of questionable assumptions and outdated projections about land use."

Bliley, like other critics from the ethanol industry, noted that the commentary did not mention the work of the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, which found corn ethanol has 44% to 52% lower greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.

SAB members were largely supportive of the commentary, but some, including those who served on the workgroup, felt it was important to emphasize the overall conclusion:that EPA needs to conduct more research on the lifecycle emissions of corn ethanol.

SAB member June Weintraub, senior epidemiologist and manager of water and noise programs for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said there was a need to balance the statement that has become a “sound bite” – that corn ethanol may have “minimal or no climate benefits” compared to gasoline or diesel.

“It would be important to counter that with an acknowledgement that there is actually good science on both sides of that discussion, which I think the commentary goes forward in describing very well,” Weintraub said.

“I wouldn't object to sort of softening the language, but agreeing with the conclusions,” said work group member Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“What we said is, we need to dig deeper,” he said. “And we can quibble about the words on how we frame the reason why. But the bottom line is, the conclusion is that we want to dig deeper.”

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“I think our recommendation that this be evaluated further is an appropriate recommendation,” said work group member Peter Thorne, professor and head of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.

In the commentary, the SAB “recommends that the EPA conduct more extensive research into the role the RFS plays in reducing GHG emissions. Future rulemakings that set volume requirements for renewable fuels should more directly address the scientific question of whether corn starch ethanol has lifecycle GHG emissions no higher than 80% of those of gasoline and diesel.”

David MacIntosh, chief science officer and director of analytics at Environmental Health & Engineering Inc., told the SAB that the document treats all studies the same, when “only a portion of them represent the best available science” on lifecycle emissions.

MacIntosh told the board Thursday that EH&E has concluded that the “best available science suggests” that using corn starch ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 46% compared to gasoline.

Also testifying before the SAB were Geoff Cooper, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, and Neil Caskey, president of the National Corn Growers Association.

Comments submitted to the SAB are here

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