One of the three pillars of climate-smart agriculture is actions that farmers can take to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and simultaneously improve profitability. A principal means by which the agriculture sector can help governments around the world reach global emission-reduction goals is through the production and implementation of biofuel technologies that utilize farm and forestry feedstocks.
According to the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance (GRFA), the transportation sector is the second-biggest source of GHGs in the world, accounting for more than one-fifth of all emissions.
The GRFA also notes the transportation’s progress in reducing its emissions is among the slowest of all sectors, likely attributable in part to the failure to meet the full potential offered by biofuel technologies, including the use of ethanol, due to poor policies that either fail to offer sufficient incentives to promote their development or put up barriers that impede their implementation.
As GRFA President Bliss Baker recently noted, for the Paris climate agreement of 2015 to be realized, the world’s leading economies – the 37-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – need to drop their transportation sector emissions by 2.1 percent annually up to 2025. “And,” Bliss said, “they’ll need to use ethanol.”
An analysis by the American Coalition for Ethanol of research done by the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory shows that GHG emissions from corn-based ethanol dropped 60 percent over 25 years, through 2015. A more recent USDA report demonstrates the value of ethanol in cleaning up the transportation sector, showing its GHG emissions are about 43 percent lower than gasoline when measured on an energy equivalent basis. Both studies show ethanol’s emission-reduction benefits will only grow over the years ahead, driven by ongoing improvements in ethanol production and improved land management practices.
Other nations are establishing emission-reduction policies based on increase ethanol use. Japan recently updated its 2010 sustainability policy, approved in 2010, to allow corn-based ethanol imports. The new policy calls for an increase in the carbon intensity reduction requirements of ethanol used as a feedstock to make ETBE, an oxygenate additive, to meet a 55 percent reduction, up from 50 percent, and recognizes corn-based, U.S.-produced ethanol’s ability to meet that goal, even with the higher GHG-reduction standard.
However, the ongoing disputes in Washington over the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is obfuscating the important role biofuels can and must play here in the United States and abroad in addressing a changing climate.
A subcabinet-level gathering late last month of officials representing USDA, EPA and DOE was the latest in numerous meetings held in recent months, including several at the White House with President Trump, to remove barriers to the year-round sale of E15 blend fuels and resolve a longstanding dispute over Renewable Fuel Identification numbers (RINs). RINs are assigned to commercially-made biofuels. Refiners who have insufficient amounts to meet their blending mandates under the RFS must purchase RINs from other refiners who have accumulated more credits than needed to meet their blending obligations. EPA has granted more than two dozen blending waivers from RFS requirements to refiners who claim RIN prices are too steep and pose economic hardships.
Critics say the agency under Administrator Scott Pruitt is granting the waivers at a rate far greater than in previous years and to refiners that don’t meet “hardship” requirement – in effect, undermining the RFS and the ethanol market. The complaint was formally pursued by ethanol and farm groups who filed suit this week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit to challenge waivers to the RFS.
As for allowing sales of E15 (15-percent ethanol) during summer months in most of the country, Trump has agreed the ban should be lifted – EPA studies show the higher ethanol blend does not pose the air quality problems originally cited when the ban was imposed. But no formal action has yet been taken to expand E15 sales – a move that will boost the market – and the ban goes into effect Friday.
The dispute over the RFS is also muddling the promotion of even higher ethanol blends (E20-40) in transportation fuels to provide greater efficiency and fewer emissions – an effort that takes on additional significance with a decision pending from the Trump administration on whether to formally roll back auto fuel efficiency and GHG targets in the next decade.
Stakeholders are urged to reach out to their lawmakers (Congress is out of session this week) in their home districts and states and impress upon them the need to sustain the RFS, ensuring it remains the working, regulatory tool that has made biofuels an important part of our nation’s energy and GHG-reduction strategy.