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Flying Blind: EPA Can’t Start Fixing the RFS Until It Stops Ignoring the Problems

August 19, 2016

Before we dig into the new report on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to conduct “an objective analysis on the environmental impacts and unintended consequences of U.S. biofuel policy,” or how that report echoes the Clean Air Task Force’s long-held position that EPA has not adequately assessed the negative effects that conventional biofuels like corn ethanol have on climate and the environment more broadly, let’s be clear about the following:

Many of the environmental problems caused by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) are rooted in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), the federal statute that dramatically expanded the RFS. EPA didn’t create these problems, nor can it fix them. They have to be fixed by Congress.

But according to EPA’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), the Agency does have a responsibility to analyze the environmental impact of the RFS more thoroughly and more frequently, so that it can better limit the environmental harms caused by the program. In its new report titled “EPA Has Not Met Certain Statutory Requirements to Identify Environmental Impacts of Renewable Fuel Standard,” OIG chastises EPA for failing to “[p]rovide triennial reports to Congress on the environmental and conservation impacts of the RFS program” despite a legal obligation to do so; failing to “[c]onduct an anti-backsliding study on the impacts of RFS on air quality” despite—again—a legal obligation to do so; and failing to “[m]ake a determination as to whether mitigation measures are necessary.”

OIG is justifiably concerned that these failures are undermining EPA’s implementation of the RFS:

Without the required reports on impacts of the RFS program or an anti-backsliding study and related decisions about mitigation measures, it is unclear how the EPA considers or mitigates these impacts. It also remains unclear what types of changes in lifecycle science would trigger an updated analysis of GHG lifecycle thresholds for RFS.

With respect to GHG emissions, OIG notes that “[a]lthough EISA does not require an update of the [RFS’s minimum] GHG lifecycle thresholds, the EPA publicly committed to update its analysis as the lifecycle science evolves.” Not only has EPA failed to make good on that commitment, OIG found that the Agency “has no plans to update the original 2010 analysis on primary RFS fuel sources (such as corn ethanol), which make up most of the current RFS volume mandates.” (In fact, corn ethanol has accounted for 87% of the biofuel used to comply with the RFS over the last ten years.)

EPA’s refusal to review its lifecycle GHG analyses for corn ethanol and its insistence that “the state of science has not changed enough … to warrant revisiting its prior GHG determinations” seem especially troubling to OIG, mainly because EPA’s approach is difficult to square with a leading analysis of EPA’s lifecycle methodology conducted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). “The 2011 NAS study,” writes OIG, “described the impacts of biofuel production and consumption as uncertain and stated that the overall environmental outcome of biofuel production cannot be guaranteed without a strategic ‘lifecycle vision of where and how the bioenergy feedstocks will be grown to meet the [RFS] consumption mandate.’”

Because of EPA’s failure to issue required reports on the RFS’s various environmental impacts and its refusal to update its 2010 lifecycle GHG assessments, writes OIG, “the EPA, Congress and other stakeholders lack key information on impacts needed for making science-based decisions about RFS.”

The resulting complications are especially evident in the context of the RFS’s GHG impacts.

According to the lifecycle analysis that EPA conducted in 2010, net GHG emissions from corn ethanol over a 30-year period would be 21% lower than an energy equivalent volume of gasoline. EPA’s calculation was based on a set of hypothetical production factors that the Agency claimed would become standard throughout the industry by 2022 (e.g., the use of biomass combustion to power ethanol refineries).

Using EPA’s own data, CATF re-calculated the lifecycle GHG emissions from the corn ethanol actually being produced at existing refineries. We found that over the 30-year period of 2015-2044, cumulative GHG emissions from RFS-mandated corn ethanol would equal about 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide; the emissions from an energy-equivalent amount of gasoline would equal 1.1 billion tons. In other words, the cumulative lifecycle GHG emissions from corn ethanol are around 28% higher than those from gasoline.

The 2011 study by the National Academy of Sciences—referenced in the new OIG report—looked at the same data and reached a similar conclusion:

[A]ccording to EPA’s own estimates, corn-grain ethanol produced in 2011, which is almost exclusively made in biorefineries using natural gas as a heat source, is a higher emitter of GHG than gasoline. Nevertheless, corn-grain ethanol produced at the time this report was written still qualified for RFS2 based upon EPA’s industry-weighted average of projected 2022 industry. The discrepancy between how RFS2 is implemented (under the assumption of 21-percent reduction of GHG emissions by corn-grain ethanol compared to gasoline) and EPA’s own analysis suggests that RFS2 might not achieve the intended GHG reductions.

Based on these findings, CATF and others urged EPA in 2012 to invoke a provision of the Clean Air Act that authorizes the Agency to waive down the annual RFS consumption mandates whenever they are found to “severely harm the economy or environment of a State, region, or the United States.” EPA rejected our request, citing its 2010 lifecycle analysis—even though the methodology underpinning that analysis had already been discredited by the NAS.

The new OIG report indicates that EPA was (and remains) ill-prepared to consider whether the RFS mandates should be scaled back due to the severe environmental harm caused by conventional biofuels’ GHG emissions. After reminding EPA of its 2011 pledge to “identify gaps and uncertainties in the knowledge base” and “provide the scientific bases for regulatory agencies and the biofuel industry to make environmentally conscious decisions,” OIG tells the Agency:

Such information—provided in a comprehensive, regular manner—could inform RFS rulemaking and other decision making. For example, it could provide the EPA with information needed in considering waiver authority for situations involving “severe” environmental impact. Without this information, the EPA is impeded in its assessments of environmental impacts of the RFS program and making Congress aware of potential impacts. [Emphasis added.]

The RFS is a mess. It forces Americans to consume billions of gallons of environmentally-damaging conventional biofuels while doing little to promote the development of cleaner, more advanced transportation fuels. EPA may not have created that mess, but, as the OIG report points out, the Agency does have a clear duty to report on the problems caused by the RFS and to address those problems as best it can.

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