Public Comment: EPA's Proposed Renewable Fuel Standards for 2014, 2015, and 2016

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By Sofie E. Miller, Senior Policy Analyst

July 24, 2015

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As a part of its Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing biofuel blending targets for 2014, 2015, and 2016. The RFS requires refiners to blend specific amounts of renewable fuels into transportation fuel, such as gasoline and diesel. The RFS program was created in 2005 to reduce both American dependence on foreign oil and domestic gasoline consumption. According to EPA’s 2013 proposed rule, the RFS program “was created to promote substantial, sustained growth in biofuel production and consumption” resulting in “reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, enhanced energy security, economic development, and technological innovation.”[1] To that end, this proposal would mandate the production of 17.4 billion gallons of total renewable fuel in 2016, an 850 million gallon increase from the last published standards promulgated for 2013.

In its current proposal, EPA includes production standards for biomass-based diesel (biodiesel), total renewable fuel, advanced biofuel, and cellulosic biofuel, which can be seen in the table below.

Although it is the largest type of domestic biofuel, corn ethanol is only one component of the overall total renewable fuel standards promulgated by EPA. The agency also sets advanced biofuel standards, which can be met by the production of three main fuel sources: biodiesel, imported sugarcane ethanol, and cellulosic biofuel. As can be seen in the above table, EPA sets minimum standards for the production of biodiesel and cellulosic biofuel, which also count toward the agency’s total renewable fuel standards. The total renewable fuel standards prescribed for 2015 and 2016 must be met through a combination of corn ethanol and advanced biofuels (cellulosic and biodiesel).

While the stated goals of the RFS are to reduce crude oil imports and increase the use of renewable fuels, an implicit purpose of the RFS program is to benefit the environment by moving away from fuels that result in substantial carbon emissions (e.g. gasoline and diesel). However, while crude oil imports and gasoline demand have decreased, it is less clear whether the increased production of biofuels has actually reduced emissions or benefitted the environment.

The literature is mixed on the environmental effects of biofuel production, with many estimates indicating that the production of ethanol and biodiesel may significantly increase emissions, specifically of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) and criteria pollutants such as particulate matter. The following sections explore the proposed renewable fuel standards for 2014, 2015, and 2016, examine the tradeoffs that the agency faces in setting these standards, and critique the composition of the total renewable fuel standards in the proposed rule.

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[1] 78 FR 71731