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Legislation looks to improve GHG data on ethanol and improve pathway for advanced biofuels.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

February 4, 2021

4 Min Read
POET ethanol plant in Marion, Ohio
Pictured is POET's Marion, Ohio biorefining plant. The plant expanded capacity in 2018 from 70 million gallons to 150mg.Jacqui Fatka

The last four years have been anything but smooth for the biofuels industry. Those on Capitol Hill hope for a better road ahead.

There is growing optimism from many Midwest senators in anticipated support from the Biden administration on biofuels including upholding the Renewable Fuel Standard as well as acknowledging the role biofuels can play in the growing climate discussion. It was clear in both the nomination hearings for Agriculture Secretary designee Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator designee Michael Regan that those in Congress hope to capitalize on the moment.

Vilsack promised before Senate Agriculture Committee members that despite a move by this administration to encourage electric cars, biofuels still have a promising future in marine and aviation use as well as initially in low carbon solutions that bring greenhouse gas reductions today.

Regan too says agriculture will have an important seat at the table in climate discussions and adds President Joe Biden is very supportive of biofuels, in his comments during his nomination hearing.

Improved GHG modeling

In order for ethanol to begin to be recognized for its low carbon contributions, updating the science will be key.

This week, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the Adopt Greenhouse Gas and Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) Act, which would require the EPA to update its greenhouse gas modeling for ethanol and biodiesel to accurately reflect the GHG reductions achieved by biofuels. EPA would then be required to update its modeling every five years or report to Congress to affirm its modeling is current or otherwise explain why no updates were made.

“The U.S. Department of Energy GREET model, which is widely-recognized as the gold standard tool for determining the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of transportation fuels, indicates that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gases by 50% compared to gasoline. Unfortunately, the EPA has disregarded this latest lifecycle science and continues to cling to a flawed and outdated model which shows corn ethanol is only 20% cleaner than gasoline,” says American Coalition for Ethanol CEO Brian Jennings.

Related: Corn ethanol positions itself as part of climate solution

Following the introduction, Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor says biofuels continue to prove their environmental benefits and significance in the nation’s climate change efforts. Just last week, a study was released that found that greenhouse gas emissions from corn ethanol are 46% lower than gasoline, up from a previous reporting of 39%.

“As the science on biofuels and innovative farming techniques continue to improve, updating the modeling at EPA is long overdue and necessary to fully reflect biofuels’ potential to decarbonize the transportation sector and provide Americans with immediate cleaner options at the pump,” Skor says.  

Jennings adds, “Recent studies prove there is no silver bullet solution to decarbonize transportation fuels. Therefore, a portfolio of low carbon fuel strategies, including increasing the use of ethanol, will be required.”

Pathways for low-carbon biofuels

One issue that was brought up in Regan’s confirmation hearing that has not received a lot of attention is the backlog of petitions held up at EPA on advanced biofuels. For instance, regulatory inaction has stifled the advancement of promising technologies such as ethanol derived from the corn kernel fiber, explains Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Corn kernel fiber was approved as a pathway in 2014, but EPA has not advanced numerous registration applications despite applicants meeting stringent peer review requirements and being approved for sale in at least one state. 

Thune, along with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., reintroduced their legislation to approve certain advanced biofuel registrations that have gone without approval by the EPA despite the fuels already being successfully used in at least one state. Under the bill, the EPA would also be required to render a decision within 90 days on any registration application that has been pending for at least 180 days, as well as take action within 180 days for completed pathways petitions pending for at least 180 days.

“For years, EPA has prevented new and innovative low carbon fuels from entering the marketplace by refusing to approve registration requests and new pathway petitions under the RFS,” says Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association.

The EPA has also been slow to act on numerous pathway petitions, which seek to advance innovative and clean fuels made from renewable feedstock. Under the Thune-Shaheen bill, the EPA will have to render a final decision within a total of one year after a pathway petition is deemed completed. A list of pending petitions for renewable fuel pathways can be found here.

SRE decisions

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Klobuchar led a bipartisan group of senators in sending a letter to the EPA asking for a review of the three exemptions issued by former Trump EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, which, according to the letter, they say “betrayed earlier assertions by the Trump Administration that the EPA would not grant additional waivers pending the resolution of ongoing litigation.” 

The senators called on the EPA to reverse the decision to grant three exemptions if they do not comply with the Tenth Circuit Court decision, stating that, “Because the Tenth Circuit decision is the most definitive legal pronouncement to date regarding EPA’s small refinery waiver authority, we encourage the Agency to adhere to that decision for the purposes of deciding all pending exemption petitions during the pendency of the Supreme Court’s review of the decision.” 



About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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