Successes, challenges outlined at annual RFA ethanol conference

By Holly Jessen | February 19, 2015

In 2014, the U.S. ethanol industry had its most profitable year in history, Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, said Feb. 19. “Critics may be legion but we will prevail,” he said. “We are here to stay.”

Dinneen gave his state of the industry address at the 20th annual National Ethanol Conference, held this year in Grapevine, Texas. In 2014, the industry churned out a record 14.3 billion gallons of ethanol, 39 million metric tons of animal feed, 16 billion pounds of CO2 gas and 2.5 billion pounds of corn distillers’ oil. He also pointed to the recent construction completions reached at cellulosic ethanol plants developed by Quad County Corn Processors, Poet-DSM, Abengoa Bioenergy and, soon, DuPont. In addition, Dinneen revealed a 10 point plan for continued growth and evolution

Christopher Grundler, director of the U.S. EPA office of air quality and transportation, drew laughter from attendees when he said that he was going to find out who in his office approved him speaking directly after Dinneen. He added that he was surprised he had been invited back, after not delivering on his promise at the event held in Orlando last year that the EPA would finalize the renewable volume obligation numbers, known as RVO. He said, perhaps with the exception of all the people in the room at the conference, no one was more disappointed than he and his staff. “This simply is not acceptable,” he said, adding that the agency intends to release numbers this spring for 2014, 2015 and 2016. “We are determined to get the RFS back on track this year.”

Grundler outlined some of the “distractions” facing his small but dedicated staff, whom he tells, “‘protecting the planet is not for sissies.’” He also pointed to a promise the EPA did deliver on, which was to streamline the pathway approval process, resulting in 19 approvals with the efficient producer process since the changes implemented in September.     

The average review time has been shortened to less than two months and Gundler believes it can be tightened further. That has also freed EPA staff up to spend more time on what it really wants to do, advance second generation technologies. To that end, the agency has approved five new pathways and published a notice for a sixth second generation pathway.

Speaking as part of a panel presentation called “RFS and LCFS: Driving Demand or Stuck in Neutral,” Neil Koehler, president, CEO and cofounder of Pacific Ethanol Inc., said the problem of greenhouse gas (GHG) is very real. Even those inside the ethanol industry sometimes forget that and, unfortunately, biofuels are not promoted as a pathway to reduce GHG emissions as they should be.

Clear renewable fuel standard (RFS) and Low Carbon Fuel Standard policies are key, he said, adding that changes are needed. Still, Pacific Ethanol views the RFS and Low Carbon Fuel Standard as complimentary standards and the company believes the LCFS will be adopted more widely across the U.S. and worldwide. He also said that he was glad to hear Grundler use the words the “so-called blend wall,” which Pacific Ethanol doesn’t believe exists. He mentioned several countries with requirements to blend higher ethanol percentages than E15 and that the same vehicles are being used in those countries as are in the U.S.

During the conference, RFA released its updated industry outlook publication. The organization also presented Quad County Corn Processors with its industry award, and Robert Reynolds, past president and founder of Downstream Alternatives Inc., with the lifetime appreciation award. The event continues through Feb. 20.