‘Next Generation Fuels Act’ Another Nod to Ag’s Role in Taking on Climate Change

October 8, 2020

Another piece of legislation recently introduced in the House of Representatives is just the latest in a series of bills that recognize the solutions that U.S. agriculture offers in taking on the world’s most significant challenges, including climate change.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) has introduced the Next Generation Fuels Act, legislation that aims to leverage greater fuel octane to lower carbon emissions from transportation, improve air quality by reducing the use of harmful aromatics, and increase demand for biofuels, an industry hard hit by (among other factors) questionable EPA efforts to exempt refiners from blending ethanol into their transportation fuels.

It is unknown whether the bill will see any action within these waning days of the 116th Congress. But like other recently introduced measures that aim to boost agriculture’s role in battling a changing climate, the Next Generation Fuels Act serves to give notice of legislative intentions in the next Congress that could come to fruition.

Ethanol possesses a high octane rating and produces fewer carbon emissions than its petroleum-based counterparts. When motor fuels carry these high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) ethanol blends, the result is better fuel efficiency and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It’s also worth noting that ethanol is priced lower than gasoline, making it the most cost-effective octane source.

A fuel’s octane rating is the measure of its ability to resist “knocking” in the engine, which is caused when the air/fuel mixture detonates prematurely during combustion. As the DOE notes, using a fuel with a lower octane rating than the level required can cause the engine to run poorly, and can damage the engine and emissions control system over time. Fuels with greater levels of octane are more stable and have the potential to make engines more fuel-efficient.

Ethanol helps reduce GHGs by 35-50 percent compared to petroleum. By displacing hydrocarbons like aromatics in gasoline, ethanol significantly reduces emissions of hydrocarbons in exhaust, as well as air toxics, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxides. Bustos’s bill would require that new high-octane fuels utilize low-carbon sources, decarbonizing liquid fuels as vehicle technologies advance. This blending requirement, coupled with a new limit on harmful aromatics content such as benzene in gasoline, ensures that the progress that has been made to lower emissions will continue.

Of course, fuel octane can be increased using more petroleum-based sources, but that strategy would only result in more carbon emissions and erase the beneficial reduction in GHG emissions that could have resulted from improved fuel economy. And it would lead to even more emissions of harmful hydrocarbon aromatics, which degrade air quality and respiratory health.

Bustos says a key motivating factor for promoting the bill is what she calls the Trump administration’s “broken promise to ensure our country is meeting the full potential of biofuels.” A member of the House Agriculture Committee, she claims her legislation “looks toward the future to make sure we bring an environmental lens to biofuels production, in order to increase demand while reducing carbon emissions.”

The measure has drawn the support of, among others, the National Corn Growers Association, the Renewable Fuels Association and the ethanol manufacturing trade group, Growth Energy.

But the support from within the industry is not unanimous. The American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) is calling for even more specificity, with a low carbon fuel policy that assigns each fuel producer an individual carbon intensity score and measures lifecycle GHG emissions. This, they argue, would provide credit for farming practices that reduce emissions from fertilizer use and sequester carbon in the soil.

Whatever final language is agreed upon in this measure, its passage is of paramount importance. As the world transitions to new forms of mobility, the internal combustion engine will be with us for decades to come. For that reason, making the effort to improve liquid fuel quality is a smart strategy that can complement other pathways to decarbonize our transportation sector. SfL congratulates Congresswoman Bustos for introducing this timely bill and hopes it will enjoy bipartisan support.

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