New Proposed Federal Greenhouse Gas, Vehicle Efficiency Standards: A Missed Opportunity to Address Climate Change Now

August 20, 2021

Earlier this month, the EPA published in the Federal Register a rule proposing its Revised 2023 and Later Model Year Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards. Seeking public comment through Sept. 27 (a public hearing is set for next Wednesday, Aug. 25), the agency aims to reverse the weakened emissions requirements adopted by the Trump administration.

Unfortunately, the proposed rule makes only one reference to ethanol and fails to include a fuel-quality improvement pathway for achieving reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the nation’s light-duty vehicle fleet.

The agency did not invite comments on fuel quality improvement, but previous rulemaking processes may provide an avenue for reintroducing this important pathway in comments filed in response to the rule.

Meanwhile, the National Highway and Transportation Administration (NHTSA) proposed on Aug. 10 the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) rule – a standard that regulates how far our vehicles must travel on a gallon of fuel – for passenger cars and light trucks manufactured in model years 2024-2026. The proposed NHTSA standards would increase in stringency at a rate of 8 percent per year rather than the 1.5 percent year set by the previous administration.

With the EPA’s and NHTSA’s failure to include a fuel quality pathway, the Biden administration has missed a golden opportunity to capture from ethanol blended fuels immediate reductions in GHG emissions and to promote improvements in vehicle efficiency. Several recent government and peer reviewed publications document the benefits of using high blends of ethanol.

Research published in May by scientists at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory notes that from 2005 through 2019, U.S. corn ethanol production has increased significantly – from 1.6 to 15 billion gallons – due to supportive biofuel policies, such as the federal Renewable Fuel Standard.  A retrospective analysis done by the Argonne researchers of the changes in U.S. corn ethanol greenhouse gas emission intensity, sometimes known as carbon intensity (CI), over the 15 years found a significant decrease (23 percent) in the biofuel’s CI.

Elsewhere, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation said in June that the use of high octane, low carbon liquid fuels, including gasoline with high ethanol blends, “support[s] ongoing efforts to improve air quality and can provide an important bridge in reducing emissions in low-income communities during the transition to expanded vehicle electrification.”

The proposed EPA GHG vehicle standard rule, however, virtually discounts ethanol-fueled cars and trucks, a shortsighted omission driven by a 2030 goal set by Biden to make 50 percent of new light-duty vehicles to be battery-powered (electric vehicles, or EVs), plug-in hybrids or powered by fuel cells.

Solutions from the Land encourages President Biden and his administration to expand their focus and more fully recognize what renewable fuels are doing to reduce GHGs now. We also are calling on President Biden to take action and remedy the issues raised by federal courts in recent months that impact the sale of higher ethanol blends year-round. Among other actions, EPA can – and should‑ set the maximum statutory volumes under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in the 2021 and 2022 blending requirements and pursue all options to ensure uninterrupted market access for E15. Maximizing the blending requirements will expedite the reduction of GHG emissions from U.S. vehicles.

A report released this month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the Earth’s surface temperature is on track this century to exceed the 2°C-limit set in 2015 by global negotiators to avoid the worst consequences of a changing climate – unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.

The IPCC warning makes clear the need for policies that drive reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. The global report is a call for an all-hands-on-deck effort to reduce GHG emissions. A wide array of research shows biofuels offer fewer GHG emissions than conventional, fossil-based fuels, including a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters showing ethanol emits 46 percent fewer GHGs than gasoline.

The question that must be posed to the Biden administration: Why would we not take advantage of the immediate reductions cleaner fuels can provide? We call on climate, energy, environment and heath stakeholders to drive home to policymakers the message that reduced emissions are readily available through renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel. These biofuels should be aggressively promoted now and not put on a shelf as we await an as yet indeterminate alternative.

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