At the Table, or On the Menu?

FROM THE FEBRUARY ISSUE: As discussions about climate change ramp up, ethanol and its impact on emissions and the environment should be top of mind.
By Geoff Cooper | January 22, 2020

We’re only halfway through the 116th Congress and, already, there have been nearly 40 legislative proposals and resolutions introduced to tackle climate change and cut U.S. carbon emissions.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are bringing ideas to the table, including everything from the provocative “Green New Deal” to renewable electricity mandates to rejoining the Paris climate agreement to stimulating investment in carbon capture and sequestration. While few, if any, of these proposals are expected to go anywhere immediately, their sponsors are sending a clear message: Legislative action aimed at curbing carbon emissions and combating climate change is coming.

And it isn’t just in the halls of Congress that climate change is dominating policy discussions—it’s on the presidential campaign trail as well. Every Democratic candidate running for president says reducing carbon emissions is a top priority. Some, like investor Tom Steyer, have made climate change the defining issue of their campaigns. As for the incumbent, President Donald Trump told world leaders in December that “climate change is very important.”

As is often the case, the escalating political discourse around climate change is merely a reflection of escalating public discourse. People are talking about climate change more than ever before. And, as evidenced by the fact that Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year is a 17-year-old climate activist, public opinion on the importance of reducing carbon emissions continues to trend in one direction only. In fact, a recent Morning Consult poll found that 69 percent of adults report “worrying about climate change” and support taking action.

So, where does that leave us? How does ethanol fit into the discussion? Whether we are “at the table or on the menu” for the emerging climate change debate is entirely up to us.

From RFA’s perspective, the ethanol industry should not just have a seat at the table—we should be helping lead the conversation. We have a great story to tell. With ethanol, we don’t have to wait and hope for major technological or economic breakthroughs; the fuel is available now at a low cost to drive decarbonization of our liquid fuels.

The U.S. Department of Energy, California Air Resources Board, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others already recognize that grain-based ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 35 to 50 percent compared to gasoline. Emerging technologies promise to boost that reduction to around 70 percent in just the next few years, according to USDA. Further, CARB data shows that ethanol is responsible for 22 million metric tons of GHG reduction from California’s transportation sector since 2011—more than any other low carbon fuel.

RFA is already actively engaged in many initiatives and policy discussions to ensure ethanol’s carbon bona fides are properly represented and understood. We are setting ethanol up to succeed in existing and future policy frameworks focused on reducing GHG emissions from transportation.

In addition to continuing our work to solidify and expand ethanol’s role under existing Low Carbon Fuel Standard programs in California and Oregon, we are working with stakeholders in New York, Colorado, Washington and other states where LCFS programs are being investigated or developed.

We have also collaborated with a diverse group of stakeholders on a potential Clean Fuel Standard for the Midwest. This program would leverage the unique strengths and resources of the Midwest region, use the best available science and modeling tools to assess life cycle carbon intensity, and ensure all fuels are judged fairly using consistent metrics. Having a successful “Midwest model” available could be very helpful to our industry if—or, more likely, when—conversations about a national LCFS kick into high gear.

Finally, at the federal level, RFA is working with industry partners to promote a Low Carbon Octane Standard that would transition our current 87 octane regular gasoline to something around 94 octane. Under this standard, the required octane boost must come from octane sources that achieve significant GHG reductions compared to gasoline. This program would simultaneously enable more fuel-efficient engines, reduce tailpipe GHG emissions, and deliver additional savings at the pump for consumers.

While it’s hard to know exactly where the debate over climate change policy will end up, one thing seems certain: Definitive action to curb carbon emissions is coming. Are you ready for it?

Author: Geoff Cooper
President and CEO
Renewable Fuels Association
202.289.3835
gcooper@ethanolrfa.org