Ethanol industry: RFS cuts GHG emissions, biofuels keep improving

By Susanne Retka Schill | May 24, 2013

The benefits from the renewable fuels standard are clear in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, proponents of the ethanol industry have said in response to questions posed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee has issued its third white paper asking for comments on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and environmental impacts in its ongoing examination of the RFS.  

In his letter prefacing comments on the questions posed by the committee, Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, summarized the organization’s view: “With respect to impacts on our environment, petroleum represents the most harmful and dangerous source of transportation fuel while renewable fuels such as ethanol represent the safest. Recent crude oil spills have killed fish, animals, and plant life. Ethanol, on the other hand, is derived from plant life and ethanol coproducts are fed to fish and livestock. At the same time ethanol’s lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and production efficiencies are dramatically improving, extracting and processing crude oil into gasoline is becoming more expensive, inefficient, and destructive to the environment.”

ACE stressed in its statement that it does not support opening or modifying the statute to amend the RFS, adding, “The EPA has sufficient authority to review and improve its modeling of lifecycle GHG emissions related to renewable fuels.”  The ACE statement went on to address some of the specific questions posed by the House energy committee, pointing out that GHG gas reductions for biofuels are compared to the 2005 average petroleum baseline. While biofuels have improved since then, the average petroleum emissions have increased as new tar sands and tight oils are far more carbon-intensive.  ACE also outlined many of the benefits in air quality from the use of ethanol as an oxygenate, as well as addressing questions asked about the environmental impact of feedstock production and pointing out the weaknesses of the indirect land use change concept. “If the indirect GHG emissions of biofuels are counted toward the carbon footprint, so should be the indirect emissions associated with petroleum production,” the statement said.

Fuels America, the coalition of U.S. biofuels industry organizations and firms, also responded, pointing out that “we are just one-third of the way through the 15-year policy, and just three years from the issuance of final regulations. In 2007, Congress listened to the frequent requests for policy stability in order to create an environment in which investment decisions can be made.” Fuels America’ statement urged that Congress stay the course, pointing out the statute is filled with multiple flexibility mechanisms that the U.S. EPA has applied as required.

Fuels America’s statement went on to stress the importance of renewable fuels in reducing U.S. GHG emissions.  “EPA reports that the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to transportation accounted for about 31 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2010, with nearly 65 percent of those emissions stemming from gasoline consumption for personal vehicle use. We simply cannot address climate change if we do not reduce our consumption of oil regardless of whether that oil comes from inside or outside of our nation’s borders.”

The statement addressed the improved efficiencies in water use for corn production and improved yields, the role that ethanol plays in providing oxygenate for fuels that improves air quality, and other points. “The Renewable Fuel Standard ensures that our nation will continue down the path of reducing our dependence on oil, produced at home or abroad, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and breaking the stranglehold that the global oil market has on the price that American families and businesses pay at the pump. It is only with the stability of the RFS that we can continue on our current trajectory to achieve these goals.”

The Renewable Fuels Association responded to the House energy committees questions with 10 of its own that stressed the need to examine the impact of the RFS in a broader context including the negative impact of Big Oil and the damaging effects of gasoline production on the environment.