Drought Prompts Attack on U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard

Drought-stressed cornfield on the Tennessee/Kentucky border, July 26, 2012 (Photo by Crane Station)


WASHINGTON, DC, August 8, 2012 (ENS) – Eight U.S. biofuel industry organizations have formed a new coalition to defend the nation’s Renewable Fuel Standard and to advocate for domestic production of advanced biofuels.

Their first fight is against a movement by members of the House of Representatives who are pressuring the Obama Administration to waive the federal Renewable Fuel Standard.

Under the RFS, enacted in 2005, a minimum volume of biofuels such as ethanol must be used in the national transportation fuel supply each year. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture says 43 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used to make the ethanol upon which the volume goals of the Renewable Fuel Standard are based.

Drought-stressed cornfield on the Tennessee/Kentucky border, July 26, 2012 (Photo by Crane Station)


Conventional biofuel production has declined this year as corn prices have risen due to the record drought that has left corn standing dead in fields across the Midwest.

But advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol, made by the action of micro-organisms on agricultural waste, are beginning to make headway in coming to market. The end product, a clean-burning, high-octane fuel, is the same as ethanol made from corn. The first gallons of cellulosic ethanol were brought to the commercial market just this past April.

The pressure came in the form of a letter sent Thursday by 156 Members of the House of Representatives to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson. It asks her to reduce the federal Renewable Fuel Standard.

“As serious drought conditions continue moving across nearly two-thirds of the country, we are at a critical juncture where federal policy meets real world realities,” states the letter.  

“Relief from the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) is extremely urgent because another short corn crop would be devastating to the animal agriculture industry, food manufacturers, foodservice providers, as well as to consumers,” wrote the Members of Congress. “We urge you to adjust the RFS mandate for 2012 to account for the anticipated severe shortage in corn.”

Members of the new Biofuels Producers Coordinating Council say reducing the volume of renewable fuel required to be blended into transportation fuel is unlikely to provide relief to livestock producers, farmers, or people who eat corn and products made from the grain.

But waiving the RFS could produce unintended consequences for biotech companies developing advanced biofuels, warns the new council.

Council member Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Industrial and Environmental Sections, said a reduction in the RFS would be especially hard on companies trying to develop cellulosic ethanol.

“Undermining the RFS will have a chilling effect on the development of cellulosic feedstocks that are not used for food or feed,” said Erickson. “The RFS is important for all biofuels, but it is critically important for cellulosic feedstock process development.”

“This aspect is often neglected by the media and is not well understood by cattle ranchers, pork and chicken producers,” he said.

“Waiving the federal Renewable Fuel Standard even for one year will produce instability in the program for several years, causing uncertainty for companies investing in advanced biofuels and for farmers growing next-generation energy crops,” said Erickson.

The new council will include the Advanced Biofuels Association, the Advanced Ethanol Council, the Algal Biomass Organization, the American Coalition for Ethanol, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Growth Energy, the National Biodiesel Board, and the Renewable Fuels Association.

A recent study by Professor Bruce Babcock at Iowa State University found that a complete waiver of the Renewable Fuels Standard might reduce corn prices by only 4.6 percent. The report states, “The desire by livestock groups to see additional flexibility in ethanol mandates may not result in as large a drop in feed costs as hoped.”  

Babcock wrote, “The flexibility built into the Renewable Fuels Standard allowing obligated parties to carry over blending credits from previous years significantly lowers the economic impacts of a short crop, because it introduces flexibility into the mandate.”

The newly formed biofuels producers coalition states that since the Renewable Fuel Standard was adopted in 2005, U.S. production of biofuels has tripled and reliance on foreign oil has been cut by nearly one-third.

“Cellulosic ethanol technology is a reality – today, says Steve Mirshak, business director, DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol. “In 2012, we will break ground on a commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa, which, when fully operational, will supply over 27 million gallons per year to the U.S. transportation fuel market.”

DuPont’s cellulosic ethanol plant will produce the fuel from corn stover – the leaves, stalks and husks of corn, now considered agricultural waste. DuPont has bought land next to an existing corn ethanol plant. Engineering and permitting is underway. The company expects to complete construction within 18 months.

About 135 miles to the south, POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels broke ground in March for a cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa next to one of POET’s existing corn ethanol refineries. Called Project LIBERTY, this commercial cellulosic ethanol plant will utilize corn cobs, leaves, husks and stalks to produce the fuel. It is scheduled to open in 2013.

“The RFS is working, setting a clear path for U.S. energy security, reduced reliance on foreign oil, and a cleaner, healthier environment,” said Erickson. “Congress and the EPA should be appropriately cautious about rushing to make long-term changes to this policy.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.

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