Campaigners want US to rethink biofuel feedstocks

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/amedved
© iStock/amedved

Related tags Biofuel Ethanol fuel

Factors such as direct and indirect land use conversion, higher feed prices and environmental damage are prompting US environmental campaigners, Mighty Earth, and others to demand the EPA reconsider and reduce mandates for conventional, food-based biofuels.

Their comments came as the public consultation phase of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal​ ​on mandated biofuel levels drew to a close.

This week saw Mighty Earth host a conference call in relation to why there is a need for US biofuel policy reform including reducing mandated levels of food-based biofuels, the maintenance of support for second-generation biofuels, and commitment to funding to restore lost wildlife habitat.

“We’ve convened this briefing to talk about biofuel policy and the environmental concern that well intended biofuel polices are unfortunately causing enormous damage to the climate, America’s waters and wildlife,”​ said Henry Waxman, former congressman and current chairman of Mighty Earth. “Mighty Earth and the National Wildlife Federation have joined a coalition of conservation groups in asking the EPA to use its authority to reduce mandated levels of the most problematic types of these fuels including corn ethanol and palm and soy biodiesel.”

Biofuels once looked environmentally promising and use of food or feed crop products were viewed as a bridge to new technologies, he said on the call. Those environmental benefits have yet to materialize, he added.

“The problem goes beyond climate change; we can see the impact of biofuels enormous growth as they drive the conversion of more and more acres of our last remaining prairie into corn and soy monocultures,”​ he added.

Proposed volumes

The US Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program started in 2006 and was modified in 2007 by the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), with the goal of increasing the amount of renewable fuels used and establishing greater energy independence.

The statute has annual volume targets. The current proposal addresses annual percentage standards for cellulosic biofuel, biomass-based diesel, advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel produced or imported for 2018 – it also sets a volume for biomass-based diesel for 2019.

The development of biofuels has had some challenges, including slow development of cellulosic biofuel, the agency said. These issues mean that targets initially set by Congress are not workable, other than for biomass-based diesel.

As such, the proposal is to reduce the amount of cellulosic biofuel required and set volume targets for both advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel that are behind statutory targets, the EPA said.

Problems and suggested reforms

Chris Wright, from the Natural Resources Research Institute and the University of Minnesota, said while there has been extensive debate over whether ethanol policy has caused land use conversion, an assessment of 100-mile regions surrounding ethanol facilities indicates conversion increases in proximity to refineries.

“In aggregate, 2.4m acres of non-crop land [were] converted to crop land within 100 miles of US ethanol refineries,”​ he said.

The US National Chicken Council have previously spoken​ ​out out against the amounts set in the RFS because the generation of corn based biofuel diverts feed ingredients. The council maintains that the RFS had added about $60m in feed costs to members since it was implemented. 

The initial law included land use protections but they have not been enforced, said Waxman.

“That’s why Mighty Earth is asking [the] EPA to use the full extent of its authority to reduce mandated levels of food-based biofuels,” ​he said. “We also need Congress to act on broader reforms of the RFS.”

Congress has the ability to amend the policy to promote use of the best types of biofuels while limiting use of the worst, he said.  

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