EPA Sets Rules for Sizing Up Ethanol's Carbon Footprint, Controversy Rages On

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Should greenhouse gas emissions resulting from changes in land use related to biofuels production — directly or indirectly — factor into official measurements of the fuel’s carbon footprint? That question has divided ethanol advocates, environmental groups and policymakers for years, and today the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in with its final answer: Yes.

The agency will consider emissions from direct and indirect land-use changes (such as forests cleared in other countries to grow food crops to compensate for U.S. crops being used as feedstock) when it implements the Renewable Fuels Standard, or RFS, which mandates an increase in biofuels production to 36 billion gallons by 2022, up from 11.1 billion gallons last year. To count toward the required volume, fuels have to show a smaller carbon footprint compared to the fossil fuels they’re meant to replace.

The EPA’s decision does not end the conflict, however. Agriculture committee chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota responded to the decision this afternoon. “To think that we can credibly measure the impact of international indirect land use is completely unrealistic,” he said in a statement. “I will continue to push for legislation that prevents unreliable methods and unfair standards from burdening the biofuels industry.” Biotechnology group BIO commented in a release, meanwhile, that the final rule “highlights the fact that – even with questionable assumptions about international land use change – advanced biofuels can significantly reduce and reverse growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.”

Environmental group Friends of the Earth called today for “skepticism” about the EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions model, given the agency’s “highly optimistic” expectation that ethanol from corn will deliver greenhouse gas emissions savings compared to regular gasoline by 2022. “We plan to examine the methodology that the EPA used and to determine how it diverges from the methodology used by leading experts who have found biofuels generate more carbon pollution than regular gasoline,” the group said.

If the biofuels industry continues on its current course, however, it won’t actually hit the renewable fuel targets. That’s according to the Obama administration’s Biofuels Interagency Working Group. Created in May 2009 and co-chaired by the EPA, USDA and Department of Energy, the group issued its first report today, finding that “we are not on a trajectory to reach” the 36 billion gallon standard established by Congress, or the 100 million gallon target for cellulosic biofuels production by 2010. In order to improve that trajectory, the working group recommends boosting coordination between government agencies and programs, as well as government and private-sector investments across “all phases of development,” from research to pilot-scale demonstration to commercialization and distribution to customers.

One of those customers should be the government itself, according to the report. “To the extent possible,” the group writes, the federal government will work to use more “biofuels in its cars and trucks with flex fuel vehicles, particularly in the urban areas of the upper Midwest states,” and encourage local and state governments to do the same.

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