Report: Ethanol, LCFS can help US meet net-zero goal

By Erin Voegele | June 30, 2020

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis on June 30 unveiled a climate crisis action plan that aims to serve as a congressional roadmap to help the U.S. reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Ethanol, according to the plan, will play a role in helping to meet that goal.

The report, titled “Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America,” includes detailed, actionable climate solutions that the committee says Congress should enact to benefit American families in communities across the nation. The plan calls on Congress to grow the U.S. economy and put Americans back to work in clean energy jobs; protect the health of all families; make sure U.S. communities and farmers can withstand the impacts of climate change; and protect America’s land and waters for the next generation.

One component of the plan calls on Congress to build on the Renewable Fuel Standard with a transition to a Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The current version of the RFS, enacted in 2007, requires U.S. transportation fuels to contain minimum volumes of biofuels, including specific targets for advanced biofuels, cellulosic biofuels and biomass-based diesel through 2022. After 2022, however, the U.S. EPA is given more discretion in setting annual blending obligations.

“The 2022 date offers an opportunity to build on the RFS and transition to a program that encourages the development and production of liquid fuels that meet certain carbon emissions standards,” wrote the committee in the report. “The California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), for example, assesses fuels based on a lifecycle carbon intensity benchmark—the amount of emissions per unit of energy output—that declines over time. The lifecycle assessment considers the direct greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing, transporting, and using the fuel and indirect emissions associated with changes in land use for some biofuels. Fuels with a carbon intensity below the benchmark generate credits, while fuels with a carbon intensity above the benchmark generate deficits.”

According to the report, biodiesel, renewable diesel and ethanol generated approximately 75 percent of California’s LCFS credits in 2018 and 2019. The report also notes that the state’s LCFS policy has supported growth of electricity as a transportation fuel.

The committee notes that a broad coalition of agriculture, environmental, renewable liquid fuel, and electricity stakeholders have developed a framework for a Midwest Clean Fuel Standard that would significantly reduce transportation greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and generate economic benefits for the region.

“As the U.S. economy moves toward a net-zero by 2050 goal, low-carbon liquid fuels will have an important role to play in reducing oil consumption in the transportation sector and averting greenhouse gas emissions,” said the committee in the report. “The conversion to electric or other zero-emission vehicles will not happen overnight. Harder-to-decarbonize sectors where electrification may not be cost-effective, such as shipping, aviation, and long-haul trucking, could look to low-carbon liquid fuels as a potential solution. Highly efficient engines also could drive new demand for high-octane, low-carbon fuels.”

“The standard should set a technology- and feedstock-neutral benchmark for liquid and non-liquid fuels tied to a lifecycle assessment of the carbon intensity of the fuels,” the committee explained. “The carbon intensity standard should become more stringent (lower) over time. The lifecycle assessment should reflect the best-available science about the carbon intensity of fuel production, farming practices, land use changes, and crop productivity. The standard should include guardrails to prevent conversion of any non-agricultural lands into cropland, particularly sensitive lands with high carbon sequestration and biodiversity value. For renewable liquid fuels, the LCFS should reward entities in the value chain, including farmers and producers, that use climate-smart practices that reduce carbon emissions, store soil carbon, and reduce nitrous oxide emissions.”

The committee also notes the LCFS should allow low-carbon shipping and aviation fuels that meet carbon intensity standards to qualify for credits.

In addition, the report addresses the EPA’s failure to incorporate renewable electricity into the RFS program despite being directed by Congress to study the feasibility of issues renewable identification numbers (RINs) under the RFS to electric vehicles powered by electricity produced from renewable sources. “Unless and until Congress creates an LCFS, Congress should direct EPA to complete any necessary rulemakings or other administrative steps necessary to allow the generation of eRINs for biogas-derived electricity used as a transportation fuel,” the committee wrote in the report.

Another component of the report urges Congress to increase research, development and demonstration funding for next-generation biofuels and other alternative fuels.

Ethanol is also addressed in a portion of the report focused on carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). According to the committee, CCUS has the potential to drastically reduce pollution from multiple industry subsectors by capturing emissions associated with both energy use and chemical processes. Some industrial processes, such as ethanol production, have relatively pure streams of carbon dioxide, making capture less expensive and CCUS more feasible. The report notes that Archer Daniels Midland in 2017 started up the world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture project at an ethanol plant. That project captures carbon dioxide and stores it in a saline formation below ground.

Several biofuel groups have welcomed the inclusion of ethanol and a LCFS in the report, including the Renewable Fuels Association. “RFA continues to analyze the report, but at first blush we are highly encouraged by the Select Committee’s acknowledgement that renewable fuels like ethanol can play an important role in reducing the carbon impacts of our nation’s transportation sector in the future,” said Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the RFA. “RFA agrees with the Committee that widespread use of liquid fuels and internal combustion engines will continue for decades to come, and we welcome the recommendation to create a nationwide technology- and feedstock-neutral Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The Committee correctly points out that the LCFS policy model already has a proven track record and that renewable fuels have played a crucial role in achieving the objectives of the California LCFS. We also concur with the Committee’s position that high-octane, low-carbon fuels could deliver substantial carbon benefits at a low cost in the years ahead.”

“Finally, we are very pleased to see the Committee recognize the efforts of a broad coalition of stakeholders—including RFA—who recently developed a framework and set of guiding principles for a Midwest LCFS program,” he continued. “RFA served on the steering committee for the Midwest LCFS coalition, and we prioritized the inclusion of approaches that would reward farmers for reducing the carbon intensity of agricultural practices; we were happy to see the Committee recommend including incentives for lower-carbon farming practices in a national LCFS program.”

While the report offers only broad recommendations, Cooper underscored that the yet-to-be-developed details surrounding potential implementation of the recommendations will be crucially important. “The big picture presented in the report is promising, but the devil is always in the details—and those details won’t be hammered out until the committees of jurisdiction begin crafting legislation based on these recommendations,” he said. Cooper cited lifecycle assessment methods, the carbon intensity reduction curve, land use measures, and the interaction of a national LCFS with state programs and the Renewable Fuel Standard as examples of “details that matter.”

Overall, however, RFA views the report as a crucial step forward in the discussion surrounding decarbonization of the nation’s transportation sector. “RFA looks forward to continuing its engagement and interaction with the Select Committee and other committees as the next steps are taken toward addressing carbon emissions and climate change,” Cooper said.

Growth Energy has spoken out to express appreciation that the action plan includes biofuels. “The evidence is clear that biofuels offer an immediate path toward decarbonization, while replacing toxic fuel additives that poison our air,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy. “Federal data show that U.S. ethanol cuts carbon emissions by 39 percent or more – and that’s only a floor – with the potential to achieve much more thanks to innovations in agriculture and ethanol production. In fact, biofuels are responsible for nearly 80 percent of all the carbon reductions credited under California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), with the recorded carbon intensity of ethanol declining nearly 33 percent since 2011.

“We appreciate the hard work of lawmakers seeking to accelerate our progress toward a healthy climate and are pleased that this report recognizes that a zero carbon future must include all clean transportation solutions—from ethanol to electric vehicles,” Skor continued. “We stand ready to explore policies and opportunities which showcase low-carbon, liquid fuels’ role in reducing emissions and pollution, and driving innovation for low-to-zero carbon renewable fuels.”

The American Coalition for Ethanol commended the committee for acknowledging ethanol is part of the solution to reduce GHG emissions. “ACE commends the Select Committee for including a recommendation in its report that Congress should develop a technology-neutral Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) which would reward farmers and biofuel producers for using climate-smart practices,” said Brian Jennings, CEO of ACE. “It is gratifying so many in Congress are recognizing that increasing the use of ethanol is part of the solution to further reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Properly crafted low carbon fuel policy built on top of the Renewable Fuel Standard’s success in beginning to break our country’s reliance on petroleum is one of the most meaningful things Congress can do to address climate change.

“The Select Committee’s recommendation for a new LCFS follows the strategic spade work ACE has been doing to leverage ethanol’s low carbon benefits in the market,” he continued. “In 2018 we issued a white paper ‘The Case for Properly Valuing the Low Carbon Benefits of Corn Ethanol,’ illustrating how lifecycle modeling needs to better reflect modern-day farming practices and ethanol production technologies and why increasing ethanol use is part of the solution to further reduce GHG emissions. In 2019 ACE helped lead a diverse set of stakeholders in developing a framework to encourage new low carbon fuel markets in the Midwest. Our January 2020 report, ‘A Clean Fuels Policy for the Midwest,’ describes how properly crafted policy can spur low carbon fuels, reduce costs to consumers, and provide meaningful economic benefits to farmers and biofuel producers.

“The Select Committee’s report not only cites our Midwest Clean Fuel Policy framework as a positive example of progress, it also mirrors our recommendations to reflect the best-available science for lifecycle assessments and reward farmers and biofuel producers using climate-smart practices that reduce carbon emissions, store soil carbon, and reduce nitrous oxide emissions,” Jennings added.

“While the Select Committee also recommends what it describes as a ‘zero-emission vehicle’ standard, we believe a new vehicle program needs to be technology-neutral and include production of more flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) that can take full advantage of carbon-negative ethanol fuels.

“We appreciate the collaborative nature of the Congressional process so far and look forward to constructively engaging in supporting solutions that benefit our climate, drivers, and our rural economy,” Jennings said.

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization said biotech innovation will pay a key role in solving the climate crisis. “Biotech companies that develop and manufacture sustainable fuels and other biobased products are helping to decarbonize the transportation and manufacturing sectors, reducing air pollution, mitigating other harmful environmental impacts, and improving public health,” said Stephanie Batchelor, vice president of BIO’s Industrial and Environmental Section.

“A national low carbon fuel standard can build off the worthy intentions of the RFS,” Batchelor added. “We’ve seen how such policies implemented at the state level at BIO’s urging have invigorated the use of clean fuels and helped to achieve a reduced climate footprint.”

The report also recognizes the need to develop cost-effective, scalable methods to measure and quantify carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction on farms and ranches, and study the feasibility of developing a federal tax credit to incentivize carbon sequestration and abatement on farms. Other recommendations include the need for biology-based tools to enable agriculture to adapt and be part of the solution to climate change such as the development of feed additives.    

“BIO appreciates the committee for recognizing the role that clean energy, green manufacturing and agricultural innovation play in mitigating climate change, protecting human health and bolstering a biobased economy,” said Batchelor.

“As the committee and Congress work to address climate change, we believe the inclusion of pro-innovation policies and technologies will help expand American leadership in this space, reduce our dependence on foreign sources of supply and demand, and reinvigorate rural and other economically struggling communities across the United States,” she continued.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’s website.