WASHINGTON, Nov. 3, 2015 -- When Sen. Chuck Grassley, Rep. Steve King,Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and other dignitaries gathered in Nevada, Iowa, last week to open DuPont’s 30-million-gallon cellulosic ethanol plant, Grassley praised DuPont for achieving “what Congress had hoped” – commercial production of new biofuels that are“cleaner, greener and more efficient.”
Grassley then joined others in criticizingEPA’s proposal to reduce the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) ethanol volume requirements. The congressionally mandated RFS requirements have been the driver that built corn ethanol up to its current production of over14 billion gallons per year, supplyingnearly 10 percent of the U.S. gasoline market.These mandates in turn have provided the market opportunity and financial incentive for private industry to invest billions in developing the technology to turn corn crop residue and other cellulosic waste materials into ethanol.
Along with the DuPont plant, already active cellulosic ethanol facilities include the Quad County/Syngenta plant in Galva, Iowa;the Abengoa plant in Hugoton, Kansas; and the POET/DSM plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. All four plants were designed to be replicated at other U.S. locations. But continuing uncertainty over the RFS has put further investment and expansion plans on hold while the companies shift their focus overseas.
DuPont’s 30-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa
Source: DuPont Industrial Biosciences
Defending the RFS, Grassley warned at the DuPont plant opening that “If we want additional investment of advanced biofuels, Congress and the EPA must reject efforts to undermine a successful program.”
But as the Nov. 30 deadline nears for EPA to announce its final RFS volume requirements for 2014, 2015 and 2016, the RFS is under attack on multiple fronts.
At a House Science subcommittee hearing Nov. 3, Environment Subcommittee Chairman Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., called on Congress to “pass legislation to repeal the RFS.” He charged that “the ethanol blending volumes required under law are impossible to meet” and insisted that “consumers do not want these fuels.” Resurrecting a widely rejected argument, he added that “By increasing demand for corn, the RFS also distorts commodity prices, raising the cost of food for American families.”
Bridenstine said “Congress designed the RFS using flawed projections about gasoline consumption, availability of renewable fuel infrastructure, bio-refinery technology, and the market demand for renewable fuels.” Discounting other research and instead citing contested analysis by one of the hearing’s witnesses, University of Michigan Professor John DeCicco, Bridenstine said research has “found that corn ethanol produced to meet the RFS makes air quality worse, and has higher life cycle emissions than gasoline.”
Responding to Bridenstine’s charge that “The RFS is an egregious perversion of the free market,” Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, said developing renewable fuels depends on the RFS “because the market isn’t free.” He said the fuel markets “are dominated by highly-consolidated and vertically integrated incumbent oil companies that continue to receive the large majority of federal subsidies to the U.S. fuel energy sector.”
“What we need is access to the marketplace,” Colman said, arguing that volume requirements need to be enforced, rather than allowing the EPA to reduce the mandates or issue waivers “if oil companies fail to distribute our fuel.”
Responding to DeCicco’s claims that “the RFS has been harmful to the environment since its inception” and that corn-based ethanol is “dirtier than gasoline,” Coleman pointed to “analysis conducted by EPA, the California Air Resources Board, the U.S. Department of Energy and top energy labs such as Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.” DeCicco responded simply that “those publications got it wrong.”
Joining the intensifying RFS debate, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and other oil and gas industry interests have stepped up their efforts to eliminate or at least “reform” the RFS. In an advertising and public relations campaign launched last week, API warns that the U.S. faces potential “fuel shortages and rationing.” Blaming the RFS for raising gasoline prices, Bob Greco, the group director of API’s downstream and industry operations, says that “ultimately Congress has the responsibility to repeal or significantly reform this outdated and potentially dangerous program.”
Greco called on EPA to “reduce the total renewable fuels volume requirements for 2016 to below 9.7 percent of gasoline demand”to give consumers the choice of non-ethanol gasoline which he says remains in high demand and to avoid exceeding“the safe level of 10 percent ethanol in the fuel supply.” API warns that any volume increase would “breach the blend wall – the point at which the mandate exceeds the safe level of 10 percent ethanol in the fuel supply.” That “safe level” reference ignores the fact that based on extensive engine testing, EPA has approved E15 gasoline (15 percent ethanol) for model-year 2001 vehicles and newer.
Ethanol groups are fighting back. Renewable Fuels Association (RFA)President and CEO Bob Dinneen insists that “the blend wall narrative has been perpetuated by the petroleum industry as a way of creating fear among consumers about ethanol, while simultaneously greatly restricting their choices at the pump.” He says“API needs to stop trying to scare consumers about biofuels in a futile attempt to protect their monopoly. Consumers rightly deserve to have choices at the pump and to hold onto more of their hard-earned dollars. The RFS is working. No amount of advertising by Big Oil will change that fact.”
Also responding to oil industry attacks, 16 members of the Congressional Black Caucus are urging EPA to raise rather than lower the RFS volume requirements. Concerned about oil industry power, the members reminded EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a letter that the Environmental Protection Agency cited the lack of infrastructure as a reason for lowering the Congressionally suggested biofuel volume requirement.
“However,” they wrote, “we know that the oil industry largely controls that infrastructure. If we accept the argument that infrastructure is a limiting factor in setting blending targets, we remove all incentive for the oil industry to invest in biofuel.”
Pursuing the debate, an oil industry-funded group called Smarter Fuel Future is airing TV ads blasting ethanol and the RFS for causing both economic and environmental harm. In a battle of competing ads, pro-ethanol Fuels America calls on President Obama to accept his own scientists’ conclusion that “the use of corn ethanol is already responsible for a 34 percent reduction in GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.”
Calling the oil industry’s claims absurd “after over a century of oil spills, pollution, and harm to our environment and public health,”National Corn Growers Association President Chip Bowling concludes that “The truth is that slashing the amount of clean, domestic renewable fuel in our motor fuel supply would dramatically increase pollution and carbon emissions, while strengthening the RFS and building on the progress of the past 10 years would help in our efforts to combat climate change.”
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