Shedding Light on Biointermediates

Shoring up its provisions on biointermediates, the EPA is catching up with new and envisioned biofuel production goals. Following a workshop on the topic, Ethanol Producer Magazine spoke with a policy expert to learn more.
By Katie Schroeder | November 06, 2022

Biointermediates have potential to give ethanol producers a chance to access other renewable fuel markets, such as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published biointermediate provisions in July that came into effect August 30. “Parties may now begin submitting registration requests and quality assurance plans for biointermediates,” said Mary Manners, deputy director of the compliance division with the EPA, in a Biointermediates Workshop hosted online September 29.  She and other EPA policy staff gave guidance to producers on how to navigate the provisions in place for biointermediate use, including compliance reporting, engineering reviews, transfer credits, biointermediate identification and more.

At the workshop, Robert Anderson from the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, and team lead on the regulatory development part of the biointermediates proposal, provided background on the development of the biointermediate provisions. “When we originally wrote the RFS2 regulations ... the focus of those regulatory provisions were on single facilities,” he said. “The idea being that all the feedstocks and all the processing to turn those feedstocks into a renewable fuel would occur in one place. And we built the program that way because that single point of regulation would allow us to more easily oversee the program and ensure that valid RINs were generated. Almost as soon as we ... finalized RFS2, we started getting inquiries from regulated parties that highlighted the opportunities for advanced cellulosic fuels that would require processing at more than one facility. And these so-called ‘proto-renewable’ fuels, or intermediate products, are what we call biointermediates.”

Chris Bliley, senior vice president of policy with Growth Energy, explains that the EPA’s earlier regulations viewed an ethanol production facility as a “one-stop-shop” for transforming biomass into biofuel. However, with the evolution of the biofuel industry there was a need for a regulatory pathway for producers to use their product to make something new. For example, processing corn or corn stover to make ethanol, but then using that ethanol to make SAF. “Essentially, the regulations had to catch up with the innovations in the industry and provide a regulatory pathway for somebody who may make something that would then be used again to produce a different biofuel,” Bliley says.

Defining Biointermediates
 One of the key things the EPA provisions accomplish is defining what a biointermediate is. During the EPA’s Biointermediate Workshop, Anderson described the regulatory criteria that define a biointermediate as found in 40 CFR 80.1401 of the RFS. First, a biointermediate is a feedstock used to make a renewable fuel made from biomass. Secondly, he explained that biointermediates cannot generate RINs; the biointermediate must be produced at a different facility than the one that produces the finished renewable fuel. “If all the production happens at a single [renewable] fuel facility it’s not a biointermediate,” Anderson said.

The biointermediate also must use an approved pathway, used in the production of the renewable fuel listed in the pathway and follow the approved process. It also must be listed in the provisions the EPA released. The various biointermediates that currently have eligible pathways under the EPA’s provisions include: biocrude, biodiesel distillate bottoms, biomass-based sugars, digestate, free fatty acid feedstock, glycerin, soapstock, and—importantly for the ethanol industry—undenatured ethanol. “[Finished] renewable fuels are not biointermediates, and neither is renewable biomass that has not been substantially altered,” Anderson explained. Finally, it cannot be a feedstock material in an approved renewable fuel pathway already used to produce that fuel.

Anderson clarified that the EPA intends to add more biointermediates to the list moving forward. If someone would like to have a potential biointermediate added, he advises them to reach out to the EPA’s support line and submit a description of it, which will allow the EPA to examine it and determine if it fits into a qualifying  category. Next, Anderson recommends that the submitter puts in a petition for rulemaking, allowing the EPA to add it to the regulations so that it can be used to generate RINs. “The biointermediate petition should contain a legal and technical justification for why we should include the potential biointermediate in the program,” he said.
The petition should include information on the biointermediate process, which feedstocks are used to make the biointermediate and what renewable fuel it makes. “We would also like a discussion of the pathways that it could fall under or whether it needs a new pathway,” Anderson said. “And then ... to help us prioritize work, the description of the timeline for its ultimate development and production.”

Production Process
Biointermediates fit into a unique production process for making renewable fuels. The process starts with renewable biomass, which may be harvested at a variety of locations, Anderson explains. Typically, the biomass goes through a “form change” before reaching the biointermediates facility. When it reaches the facility, it is converted into a “proto-renewable fuel or biointermediate.” The biointermediate is then taken to a renewable fuel facility where it is further transformed into a finished renewable fuel and distributed for use.

Under the provisions, biointermediate processing must take place at one facility and be shipped to a single renewable fuel facility, however the renewable facility can receive biointermediates from multiple sources. “There are [aspects of] the logistics [and aggregation] that are a little bit more specialized,” Bliley says. “I think, importantly, this provides some certainty to the marketplace. This provides a regulatory path forward, and I think people will work through that.”

It was also key for the EPA to define what biointermediates are and how they fit into the RFS. “There had to be some clarity about, for instance, how a product is handled, where and when the RINs are generated and what really qualifies as a biointermediate,” Bliley says.

In the workshop, Aaron Levy from the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, discussed how biointermediates fit into the EPA’s “generally applicable” pathways. “We call those generally applicable because any party can submit a registration application to produce fuel through any of the pathways listed in that table,” Levy said. He explained that no changes were made to these pathways in the biointermediates provisions other than adding esterification, which allows for the use of free fatty acids as a feedstock for biodiesel production. The pathways do not change, but the provisions simply allow the production process to be split between two facilities. Levy gave the example of renewable gasoline production from crop residue. “Now that biointermediates are allowed in the program, it allows for a supply chain where biocrude is produced from crop residue via pyrolysis at one facility and then upgraded to renewable gasoline at another facility,” he said. “Provided that those two pieces of the production process meet the production process requirements.”

Industry Impact
The provisions admitting biointermediates under the RFS give needed clarity for ethanol producers who are pursuing SAF or other innovations in the ethanol industry, Bliley explains. “I think [the provisions] are very important because they provide a regulatory path forward for our producers to [support] new innovations in renewable fuels,” he says, alluding to new market opportunities for ethanol such as SAF production. “This provides a great deal of certainty in how our producers can help meet those goals.”

“These provisions are designed to provide traceability, accountability, a chain of evidence, all of that, so that we can properly implement the program,” Manners said at the workshop. Bliley further explains that the provisions in the EPA’s recent ruling create a regulatory system, allowing the agency to ensure that the renewable fuels produced utilizing biointermediates meet the requirements of the RFS. Other key provisions are focused on RIN generation, he says. “You want to make sure that if I’m producing ethanol, that it’s undenatured and going as a feedstock for sustainable aviation fuel, for example, and so there’s not already a RIN generated when I produce it,” Bliley says.

The provisions also outline the ways in which biointermediate producers and the renewable fuel producers each must demonstrate compliance with the RFS. These requirements include attest engagement, product transfer documents and other recordkeeping requirements, as well as a mandatory quality assurance plan conducted by a third-party auditor to verify that RINs were generated correctly by the final biofuel producer.

Author: Katie Schroeder
Contact: [email protected]