Closer to Sustainable Biofuels

By Robert Vierhout | June 13, 2011

Since mid-December, all EU member states should have been in compliance with the EU rules on biofuels. Having unanimously adopted the directive in early 2009, one would think all 27 countries would  have transposed the European rules into national laws by now.

The reality is that the majority of the countries haven’t done it yet, and we don’t really know why. Besides the fact that in general, countries are slow in transposing EU law, in this case it might also be because of the complexity or novelty. In any case, it causes irritation and, above all, legal and market uncertainty at the level of market operators.

The biofuel segment of the Renewable Energy Directive seems to be plagued by delays. Clarification documents, as required by the law, came out months late and did not provide the clarification the industry was looking for. Now, two years after the law is published, there still is no clarification on important provisions such as the definition of “highly biodiverse grasslands.”

Equally disturbing for the industry was the delay in the recognition of voluntary schemes. According to Article 18 of the law, any stakeholder, be it a company, industry association, consultancy or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can develop a scheme that demonstrates that a particular consignment of biofuel complies with the mandatory sustainability criteria as mentioned in Article 17. These so-called voluntary schemes have legal meaning only if the EU executive authority, better known as the European Commission, has approved them.

More than one year ago already, the first schemes were submitted for verification and approval. The EU industry has always been anxious to demonstrate its willingness to comply with sustainability rules on biofuels. A voluntary scheme provides a good opportunity to do this, and to avoid accusations that the industry is green washing. For the industry there was a sense of urgency that seemed to be totally lacking in those that promulgated the law.

In the past 16 months, 16 schemes have been submitted and, finally, in late May the first seven got the green light from the European Commission. The 27 member states have also endorsed the seven schemes, audited and assessed by an external consultancy, and the package has been sent to the European Parliament. Once the information period is closed—20 days after publication in the EU Official Journal—the voluntary sustainability schemes have legal value. That should happen by early August.

This step is tremendously important for biofuel producers. After all, a recognized scheme makes it possible to sell certified biofuel throughout the entire union. Member states can no longer keep biofuels out of their territory, even though they prefer stricter sustainability standards. If a member state would not accept a biofuel certified according to a recognized voluntary scheme, asking for more evidence to demonstrate sustainability, it would be acting against one of the principles of the EU Treaty—free flow of goods—and could be sued for treaty noncompliance.

Not everyone, however, welcomed the recognition of the first batch of seven schemes.

A group of four NGOs went to the EU Court of Justice in late May, arguing they had been refused access to information about the voluntary schemes. It is the second time that this group of NGOs has tried to win its case by going to court. For me, it is obvious that these groups’ objective is to get biofuels out of the world—whatever it takes. Going to court over what should be welcomed is just another exercise in obtaining free publicity from those in the media who report any criticism on biofuel without questioning the source.

Industry and regulators should not be distracted by this kind of cheap lobbying. If our objective is to have sustainable biofuels, we should welcome every move towards that goal.

Author: Robert Vierhout
Secretary-general, ePURE