Obama Advances Biofuels as U.S. Misses Production Targets

WASHINGTON, DC, February 4, 2010 (ENS) – President Barack Obama has moved to increase America’s renewable fuels production, turn biomass into bioenergy, and capture and store the greenhouse gases produced by coal-burning power plants. At the same time, the administration released the first report of the Biofuels Interagency Working Group showing that the country is falling short of biofuel production targets mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

At a meeting with a bipartisan group of governors at the White House Wednesday, the President said these three measures will work in tandem to boost biofuels production, reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, foster new industries and create millions of jobs.

Advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol can be made from corn stalks remaining after the edible crop is harvested. (Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy NREL)

President Obama said the country will benefit from taking these steps now without waiting for Congress to pass a clean energy and climate bill. The House of Representatives passed its bill, the Waxman-Markey bill, last June, but a companion bill is still pending in the Senate.

“Now, I happen to believe that we should pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill,” Obama told the governors. “It will make clean energy the profitable kind of energy, and the decision by other nations to do this is already giving their businesses a leg up on developing clean energy jobs and technologies.”

“But even if you disagree on the threat posed by climate change, investing in clean energy jobs and businesses is still the right thing to do for our economy,” Obama said. “Reducing our dependence on foreign oil is still the right thing to do for our security. We can’t afford to spin our wheels while the rest of the world speeds ahead.”

“I want to be clear that my administration is following a non-ideological approach to this issue,” said Obama. “We believe in a strategy of more production, more efficiency, and more incentives for clean energy. We’re willing to make some tough decisions on issues like offshore drilling, so long as we protect coastlines and communities. We are moving forward on a new generation of nuclear power plants, although we want to make sure that they are safe and secure.”

The three energy measures Obama announced Wednesday span at least nine federal agencies and offices and are expected to benefit rural economies financially.

  1. Renewable Fuels Standard: The U.S. EPA has finalized a rule implementing the long-term renewable fuels mandate of 36 billion gallons by 2022 established by Congress. The Renewable Fuels Standard requires biofuels production to grow from last year’s 11.1 billion gallons to 36 billion gallons in 2022, with 21 billion gallons to come from advanced biofuels.

    For the first time, some renewable fuels must achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions compared to the gasoline and diesel fuels they displace in order to be counted towards compliance with volume standards.

    A key part of the rule is a computer model to calculate the total greenhouse gas emissions that are generated over the full course of the biofuels production and consumption life cycle. The EPA includes in its model the emissions that are produced due to changes in land use patterns, something that environmentalists have called for and that the law requires.

    EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters on a teleconference Wednesday that based on EPA’s updated modeling, corn ethanol meets the 20 percent greenhouse gas reduction requirement qualifying it for use as a conventional biofuel, not an advanced biofuel, which must meet a 50 percent reduction requirement. Click here to read the rule.

  2. Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage: President Obama issued a Memorandum establishing an Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS, to speed the development and deployment of cleaner coal technologies by controlling emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The Task Force has 180 days to develop a plan to overcome the barriers to affordable CCS within 10 years, with a goal of bringing five to 10 commercial demonstration projects on line by 2016.

    The Task Force will be co-chaired by representatives of from the Department of Energy and the EPA and will include participants from at least nine different federal agencies and offices. Click here to read the Memorandum.

  3. Biomass Crop Assistance Program: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed a rule for Biomass Crop Assistance Program to convert biomass to bioenergy and bio-based products. USDA provides grants, loans and other financial support to further biofuels and renewable energy commercialization. Click here to read the USDA rule:

Last May, President Obama established the Biofuels Interagency Working Group to develop a comprehensive approach to accelerating the investment in and production of American biofuels and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. On Wednesday, the Working Group released its first report, “Growing America’s Fuel,” a new U.S. Government strategy for meeting or beating the country’s biofuel targets. Click here to read the full report:

The Biofuels Interagency Working Group report finds that the country is falling short of targets mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

The report states, “The U.S. is producing 12 billion gallons per year of biofuels, mostly from corn grain ethanol, but we are not on a trajectory to reach the Congressional 36 billion gallons per year goal by 2022 or to meet the 100 million gallons cellulosic biofuels target in 2010.”

A sign promoting the use of a non-food crop, switchgrass, as a biofuel feedstock. (Photo by Jonathan Overly courtesy East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition)

“This is a substantial goal, but one that the U.S. can meet or beat,” the report states. “However, past performance and business as usual will not get us there.”

The report blames the global economic downturn for the lack of sufficient progress, saying, “The recession has raised significant barriers to private sector capital financing and investment in new biofuels production.”

Predicting that advanced next generation biofuels will be one of the most important U.S. industries in the 21st century, the report finds that many next generation biofuels feedstock and process technologies that are promising at bench scale are just beginning to be developed through the scale-up process.

The report calls first-generation corn grain ethanol “a critically important renewable fuel source that is lowering our reliance on foreign petroleum dependent fuels,” and says that advanced next generation cellulosic ethanol made from non-crop biomass “will soon be contributing as well.”

“Challenges exist in matching existing petroleum fuel distribution infrastructure and current generation biofuels, but cost-effective solutions must be found,” the report states.

The report recommends management of biofuels development by a small centrally-located team accountable to the President’s Biofuels Interagency Working Group “that has clearly defined roles and deliverables for all participating federal department, private sector, tribal, and international partners.”

Crops that are genetically modified are recommended in the report, which states, “To ensure continued productivity from the same land area, utilization of genetic diversity and genetic improvement for adaptation to different environmental conditions will be used to increase resilience of crops to climatic extremes and disease and insect pest challenges.”

“Advancing biomass and biofuel production holds the potential to create green jobs,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Facilities that produce renewable fuel from biomass have to be designed, built and operated. Additionally, BCAP will stimulate biomass production and that will benefit producers and provide the materials necessary to generate clean energy and reduce carbon pollution.”

Sugars are fermented into ethanol at the National Renewable Energy Lab. The goal is to develop cellulosic ethanol at a cost competitive with gasoline by 2012. (Photo by Pat Corkery courtesy NREL)

Renewable Fuels Assocation President Bob Dinneen said his industry is pleased with the administration’s approach. “This plan combines an appropriate appreciation for the importance of the existing biofuels industry with an understandable excitement for new technologies near fruition,” said Dinneen. “A more coordinated effort from federal agencies together with the continuation of sound biofuels policies, such as extending existing incentives, will go a long way toward meeting and exceeding America’s renewable fuel potential.”

“The U.S. biodiesel industry is pleased that the EPA has issued the final RFS2 rule,” said Joe Jobe, CEO of the National Biodiesel Board. “There are significant job creation, energy security and environmental benefits associated with expanded biodiesel use. Today’s rulemaking – in particular implementation of the Biomass-based Diesel program – will allow America to reap these benefits.”

Some environmentalists also are supportive. Environmental Defense Fund Agriculture Policy Specialist Britt Lundgren said of the new EPA Biofuels rule, “EPA today answered Congress’ call to tackle the tough job of calculating greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels. We welcome EPA’s commitment to using the best available science to evaluate emissions, and its effort to keep the rules grounded in current science as our understanding of the issue evolves.”

“We also welcome the news of the Obama administration’s new strategy for supporting development of a range of second- and third-generation biofuels that will bolster our energy security, protect the environment, and create American jobs,” Lundgren said.

But other environmentalists were more critical of the administration’s strategy.

Friends of the Earth climate and energy campaigner Kate McMahon said, “Biofuel crops deplete valuable fresh water resources, and the pesticides and fertilizers used to grow these crops pollute groundwater, streams and rivers. The demand for land on which to grow crops for biofuels production also hastens destruction of important plant and animal habitat, and it competes with the need for land for food production.”

“Better approaches include the use of more efficient vehicles, smart zoning and transportation plans that reduce the need for driving, and the eventual use of clean electricity as a vehicle fuel,” said McMahon.

“Global warming is another concern,” she said. “The EPA’s prediction that in 2022 most corn ethanol will result in less carbon pollution than regular gasoline is surprising and strikes us as highly optimistic, especially since the EPA acknowledged in its rule that corn ethanol production is driving the destruction of natural areas around the world, which in turn leads to biodiversity loss and immense carbon emissions.”

McMahon called the federal biofuels mandate “a huge gift to the biofuels industry,” and said the industry “does not need and should not receive other handouts. When the biofuels lobby asks for massive and wasteful tax credits for corn ethanol production later this year, Congress should reject them.”

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