Farm Progress

Concerns mount over biofuel rules

David Bennett 1, Associate Editor

June 29, 2009

8 Min Read

With hearings on biofuels coming fast and furious, the Renewable Fuels Association has offered a preview of its approach to the EPA proposed rulemaking for the Renewable Fuel Standard.

During a press conference in early June, the biofuel advocacy group outlined a host of objections including a claim the agency has over-stepped its bounds by incorporating international indirect land use changes into its calculations.

“While we generally applaud EPA efforts to get the rule out — and are very grateful to EPA staff for the outreach effort to stakeholders — as virtually everyone knows, we have serious concerns with the proposal,” said Bob Dineen, RFA president and CEO.

RFA’s main objections with the proposed rulemaking “revolve around the EPA analysis of lifecycle. We really do believe there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty and speculation associated with that analysis that renders the rule suspect.”

First and foremost among the concerns “is the inclusion of international indirect effects. We don’t believe the statute requires it. We don’t believe Congress believed the analysis of indirect effects should include international impacts.

“And we certainly don’t believe the science as yet would support evaluating international impacts of a farmer’s decision someplace else in the world related to biofuels production. Many of our comments will be focused on the fallacy of trying to determine international indirect effects associated with a growing biofuels industry.”

Dineen was clear that the RFA doesn’t oppose the EPA considering domestic indirect effects — something Congress wants the agency to do. “All along, our issue has been with expanding that to include international effects for which there is very little data, no modeling and no real way to link a farmer’s decision to grow grain in the United States for ethanol production and a farmer’s decision in the Amazon to cut down a tree for the lumber industry.”

That’s why RFA’s focus “has been on limiting the EPA’s statutory requirement to look at indirect effects to what happens in the United States where there is some impact that can be identified and quantified with some sense of confidence.”

There’s a case to be made that U.S. crop switching “could be anticipated with much more certainty than similar outcomes overseas,” added Geoff Cooper, RFA vice-president for research.

For instance, “a farmer in the central part of the Corn Belt might decide to forego his soybean rotation one year and do corn-on-corn. That may send a farmer in Alabama a signal, who may then decide to plant soybeans on an acre formally dedicated to cotton for which global demand has slowed.”

Does the EPA have any leeway in not considering international land use changes?

Relevant statutes require the EPA to look at “significant ‘indirect effects,’” said Dineen. “But it doesn’t say ‘international indirect effects.’ The agency has considerable flexibility to determine what was meant by that (in the law). I can tell you Congress didn’t expect the EPA to be looking at international impacts.

“Clearly, the modeling isn’t prepared to evaluate that in any way, shape or form. We think the EPA has over-stepped its mandate from Congress and has abandoned its principle of looking at sound science on this issue.”

Exports are actually “the trigger for international land use change in the modeling framework the EPA is using,” said Cooper. “If the model says exports are reduced significantly, that’s the behavior that causes land to be converted internationally.”

Currently, EPA models predict that for every 1 million gallons of new ethanol that comes on-line, “we’ll see a reduction of about 3,000 tons of corn exports. If we test that assumption against what’s happened in the last five years, what we see is that every new 1 million gallons of ethanol actually corresponded with a 6,600-ton increase in corn exports. So, there’s a real disconnect between these modeling outcomes and what’s been observed in the real world in the last several years. That’s a problem.”

High on RFA’s list of concerns is the EPA method of model integration. Nine separate models and datasets are being utilized to conduct lifecycle analysis. None of the models were designed to work together, said Dineen. And none were designed to answer the questions EPA is asking of them.

“Beyond that is model validation. Any large-scale model needs to be validated against real-world data whenever possible. It’s not at all clear that the EPA has performed any such validation or, more importantly, back-casted its model with other real-world events.”

Cooper said the satellite imagery being used by the EPA to estimate international land use changes is from 2001 through 2004. This is a “very small snapshot in time” for trend analyses.

“They assume the land use changes in that brief window of time will be similar moving forward. We have several problems with that. In South America, 2001 to 2004 was a period of accelerated forest conversion. We’ve (since) seen significant slowing of deforestation.”

The transparency of EPA’s analysis is also up for RFA scrutiny. “Any third parties like ourselves who want to comment publicly and participate in the process, need to be able to replicate the results of EPAs analysis,” said Dineen. The EPA has been adding data and information to the docket, but “there still isn’t enough for the stakeholders like the RFA to replicate what EPA has done and to comment as deeply as we need to and want to.”

While EPA has pledged that all the models are up for peer review — something Dineen lauds — comments made during the press conference made it clear the RFA will keep a close eye on how open the process truly is.

Pointing to California’s earlier biofuel-related rulemaking that promised peer review, Dineen said state officials only provided reviewers “with select data from their own rulemaking. And they provided none of the comments, none of the context for the comments that the stakeholders like the RFA was providing to regulators.

“So, the peer reviewers were handicapped in that they could only review that which was spoon-fed them by (California) agencies. We’re hopeful the EPA doesn’t make the same mistake.”

Whatever is eventually hammered out on carbon and biofuels, Dineen insisted a proper foundation must be laid.

Lifecycle issues “are clearly the most important related to this rulemaking — not just because of what it means for the Renewable Fuel Standard … but also because of what it says about carbon regulation.

“As Congress is moving forward to regulate carbon in many, many ways, having an effective, transparent, sound scientific metric for carbon evaluation will be necessary. This is the first time the EPA will be creating such a metric. That’s why this is so important.”

There is also a proposed list of “registration, recordkeeping and reporting requirements” the RFA believes are unnecessary. “We certainly have concerns about the definition for renewable biomass. Under the proposed program by the EPA, ethanol producers will have to certify that the feedstock they’re getting is coming from existing cropland.

“While we understand the need to do that, the likelihood that any of our plants would be getting feedstock from anything other than existing cropland is miniscule. Yet, apparently they’re creating this system that is quite burdensome and unnecessary.”

The EPA’s proposal also doesn’t include a mechanism to allow a plant to demonstrate “it fits outside the boxes the EPA has established in terms of lifecycle analysis. There needs to be a mechanism for site-specific technologies. No ethanol plants are created alike — they all have different technologies. New technologies emerge all the time.”

To California’s credit, it has recognized that fact “and allows for companies to petition for a different lifecycle number based upon its own unique technology. The EPA needs to do the same.”

Among the most galling aspects of the EPA proposal is the fact that biofuels and petroleum aren’t being held to the same standards. There is no indirect greenhouse gas emissions considered for oil.

“If you’re going to have an apples-to-apples comparison between ethanol and petroleum, you need to be counting all the same things. As near as we can tell from evaluating the EPA proposal, they’ve done scant analysis of the indirect effects of petroleum.

“When you consider the fact that biofuels will be replacing larger and larger volumes of Canadian tar sands or the marginal gallon of oil coming from deeper in the Gulf or from farther away, the carbon footprint for petroleum keeps getting worse. (Meanwhile), the ethanol carbon footprint keeps getting better. That needs to be acknowledged.”

Related to that is the question of petroleum’s baseline. “As you look out to 2022 and ethanol’s carbon footprint is being established, there’s no EPA analysis in the proposal that also looks at the carbon footprint of petroleum. How much Canadian tar sands will we have in that timeframe? The analysis I’ve seen suggests we’ll have five to 10 times more tar sands petroleum than we’re currently importing.”

Despite the various criticisms, Dineen was careful to say the EPA has been willing to engage in “robust” discussions about the proposed rules.

“They know we’re concerned. And they recognize there are legitimate concerns — 111 scientists signed a letter saying international indirect effects weren’t ready for any kind of regulatory framework. And in their own rulemaking they’ve recognized the uncertainties with the (current) approach.

“I’m confident before we get to a final rule, sound science will prevail.”

e-mail: [email protected]

About the Author(s)

David Bennett 1

Associate Editor, Delta Farm Press

David Bennett, associate editor for Delta Farm Press, is an Arkansan. He worked with a daily newspaper before joining Farm Press in 1994. Bennett writes about legislative and crop related issues in the Mid-South states.

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