Mandating big biofuels targets is not enough

US President Barack Obama has just announced that the Environmental Protection Agency has finalised a rule to implement the long-term renewable fuels standard of 36bn gallons by 2022 established by Congress. This is a rule a recent study by Rice University pointed out as unrealistic, noting that the Energy Independence and Security Act passed by Congress in 2007 mandated production targets of 9bn gallons of biofuels a year in 2008, rising to 36bn gallons a year by 2022.

Corn ethanol is capped at 15bn gallons a year in the law, but the study says even that level will be difficult to reach given logistical and commercial barriers. And it notes that the law called for 21bn gallons of advanced biofuels, produced from sources like switchgrass, corn stover and algae, to be used in the US fuel supply by 2022. But existing mandated targets for advanced biofuels are not currently achieveable from domestic supplies – scientifically or commercially. Therefore, the report says lawmakers should question the tariff imposed on ethanol imported from Latin America and the Caribbean.

That has not happened. Instead the Obama Administration is forging ahead in hopes of creating a slew of jobs to win popularity. The announcement sounds great on the face of it:

Increasing renewable fuels will reduce dependence on oil by more than 328m barrels a year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than 138m metric tons a year when fully phased in by 2022. For the first time, some renewable fuels must achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions – compared to the gasoline and diesel fuels they displace – in order to be counted twoards compliance with volume standards.

All that sounds good, but is it achieveable without imports? Probably not. There are no scaled up advanced biofuels available on the market today. And the problems with the first-generation biofuels, such as ethanol, are well documented. Not only does it take food out of the food chain, pushing up prices for feedstocks, such as corn, but the Rice report notes ethanol production comes with its own environmental risks, including exacerbating damage to ecosystmes and fisheries along the Mississippi River and in the Gulf of Mexico and creating water shortages in some areas experiencing significant increases in fuel crop irrigation. And it challenges claims that ethanol use lowers greenhouse gas emissions.

So what the Obama Administration is doing with this latest clean energy initative is winning points with the public – not working out a way to make an achievable goal. For that to be done, the US is likely going to have to open its borders to imports. And if the overarching goal is truly to reduce the potential for global warming, that should not be such a big issue.

Related links:

Time to revisit corn ethanol policies (FT Energy Source)

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