Environmental groups petition EPA over RFS land-use regulations

By Erin Voegele | October 31, 2018

A coalition of environmental groups have petitioned the U.S. EPA asking the agency to change how it accounts for land-use changes under the Renewable Fuel Standard. Ethanol groups are speaking out against the claims included in the petition.

On Oct. 30, Earthjustice and the Clean Air Task Force, on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation, ActionAid USA, American Bird Conservancy, Association of Northwest Steelheaders, Conservation Northwest, Hoosier Environmental Council, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Mighty Earth, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Wild Idea Buffalo Co., submitted a petition to the EPA asking the agency to “amend its regulations regarding what land can permissibly be used to produce biomass” under the Energy Independence and Security Act’s RFS.  

The petition asks EPA to make to specific modifications to its RFS regulations. First, the petition asks the agency to eliminate aggregate compliance as a permissible approach to satisfying EISA’s land-use restrictions. Rather, the groups want biofuel producers to demonstrate individual compliance with EISA’s land-use restrictions by showing that each source of crop-based biomass used to meet the RFS is grown on compliant land, defined as land that was cleared or cultivated prior to 2007 and that was actively managed or fallow and nonforested in 2007.

Second, the petition asks EPA to require proof that only EISA-compliant land is used to grow crops displaced by renewable biomass production.

Representatives of the ethanol industry are disputing claims made in the 73-page petition that feedstock production for the RFS has had a significant impact on land use.  

“There is absolutely no legitimacy to these claims and all of the available evidence from USDA, EPA, and others shows that cropland in the United States continues to shrink, while grassland and forestland is expanding,” said Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. “In fact, farmers planted 5 percent fewer acres to corn (4.4 million acres) this year than when the RFS was expanded in 2007. It is true that some cropland previously used for wheat, cotton, other coarse grains, and hay has been converted to corn over the past decade. It is also true that some cropland previously enrolled in CRP returned to corn production because Congress mandated a reduction in CRP acres. But there is no credible evidence whatsoever to support the notion that native prairie and grassland have been plowed under to make room for more corn.

“The groups also blatantly mischaracterize the findings of EPA’s triennial report, which states clearly that any potential recent expansion in cropland likely came from idle cropland, pasture, or fallow cropland returning to crop production—not native grassland conversion,” Cooper continued.

Growth Energy is also speaking out against the claims contained in the petition. “The notion that biofuels could be blamed for a change in land use—without any hard data—is wildly misleading,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy. “In fact, data from the USDA shows that America’s farmers are producing more food and energy than ever before, and they are doing it on less cropland than was under cultivation in the 1930s. You cannot attribute a rise in land use to biofuels when land use isn’t rising.”

The American Coalition for Ethanol stressed that farmers are not bringing more land into production to produce more corn, rather they are making environmental improvements to the land they already have in production. “If these groups would bother to come down from their ivory towers and visit rural America they would see first-hand how farmers are not converting native pasture or forests to produce more corn to make ethanol,” said Brian Jennings, CEO of ACE. “Instead, farmers have discovered how to increase corn production by improving the health of the soil on their existing cropland. With the adoption of no-till and other conservation practices, farmers are building soil carbon which helps them produce more bushels of corn per acre on existing fields.”

A full copy of the petition can be downloaded from the Earthjustice website.