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Enviro Groups Slap EPA with Lawsuit over RFS2

UPDATED: 7:00pm PDT

Following Big Oil, environmental groups challenge EPA’s RFS2. Enviros pressure EPA for the use of rosy projections for corn ethanol, flawed land use change analysis, and faulty GHG accounting.

A recent lawsuit filed by the Clean Air Task Force on behalf of Friends of the Earth is challenging the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS 2.0).  Specifically, the suit challenges the EPA’s use of “outdated data and rosy projections about pollution from corn ethanol in the federal biofuels mandate.”  Friends of the Earth has also petitioned the EPA’s assertion that no land use change occurs in connection to the production of biofuels.

In a separate petition filed by the Clean Air Task Force, the group is pressing the EPA for not accounting for greenhouse gas emissions associated with decreased oil prices occurring as a result of increased biofuels consumption.

Jonathan Lewis, an attorney with the Clean Air Task Force, said:

[The RFS2] will actually increase greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector in the near term and exacerbate the very problem that Congress sought to correct.

A quick look at the issues raised by the groups…

Lifecycle Emissions

Friends of the Earth Energy Policy Campaigner Kate McMahon explains:

The EPA must look at the impact that the biofuels mandate is having on global warming today and not use rosy projections about what the state of biofuel production will be in 2022.  Using these projections ensures that for the next several years greenhouse gas emissions will only get worse, rather than better.

It all starts with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), which established a 36 billion gallon mandate for biofuels while also requiring the EPA to perform a lifecycle analysis to ensure that biofuels used to meet the mandate showed a net greenhouse gas reduction as compared to gasoline and diesel.  The EPA, which administers the RFS, was tasked with measuring direct emissions as well as indirect emissions as a result of land use change.

Friends of the Earth and the Clean Air Task Force argue that the EPA’s finalized regulations for the RFS as of March 2010 did not consider the current effects of biofuels production.  Instead, the groups argue, the EPA used optimistically projected data to support its analysis that all biofuels, even corn ethanol, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2022.  In other words, the EPA is crediting corn ethanol with projected increased yields and better use of co-products in 2022 even though (the groups contend) EPA’s analysis shows that corn ethanol currently exceeds the emissions threshold set by Congress.

Using this “flawed method,” the EPA determined that all biofuels meet 2007 emissions standards, despite a growing body of research that indicate some biofuels result in worse emissions than conventional gasoline.

Land Use Change

The groups also contend that while the EISA mandate rightly prohibited the use of certain types of biomass from sensitive and natural ecosystems in order to fulfill the mandate, in their final rulemaking, the EPA deviated from this goal.  Instead, the EPA ignored ecosystem conversion occurring in the U.S.

The EPA’s decision, the groups argue, was based on the false assumption that there is no land conversion occurring because the net amount of agricultural land in the US is stagnate.  But this assumption does not take into consideration the fact that small farms are often absorbed by urban sprawl.  So, while the overall amount of land used for farming may not be increasing, in reality, some farms are shrinking due to sprawl while other farms in more rural areas are expanding.

As a result, Friends of the Earth is petitioning the EPA to reconsider its analysis.

Dinneen also stated that Friends of the Earth is incorrect in its claim that the EPA does not protect natural ecosystems by allowing lands to be placed in biofuels production.

In essence, EPA capped the amount of land that can be used for agriculture at 2007 acreage level.  If agricultural land exceeds the 2007 level, biofuel producers must prove that their feedstock did not come from newly converted land.  If they can’t prove that, their fuel will not qualify under the RFS2.

GHG Accounting

In a separate petition, the Clean Air Task Force asked the EPA to reconsider its failure to account for the so-called “global rebound effect” associated with the increased use of biofuels under the RFS2:

By displacing some gasoline from the US market, the RFS reduces overall demand for petroleum, which in turn leads to lower prices, increased consumption, and higher greenhouse gas emissions in other countries.  If EPA had considered the “global rebound effect” in its analysis of different biofuels, only a few of those fuels would have met Congress’s emissions reduction requirements.

Jonathan Lewis, an attorney with the Clean Air Task Force, said:

[The RFS2] will actually increase greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector in the near term and exacerbate the very problem that Congress sought to correct.

Meanwhile The national trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry, the Renewable Fuels Association, vocalized their criticism of the premise of this petition.

RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen argues:

To blame American biofuels for increasing global oil use defies simple common sense.  By this tortured logic, any effort that environmental activists support to reduce America’s reliance on oil would be responsible for lowering U.S. oil demand, reducing global oil prices, and inciting increased consumption somewhere else in the world.  Increasing mileage standards, deploying electric vehicles, and any other measure designed to reduce U.S. oil demand would be penalized with carbon emissions from increased global oil consumption under this rubric.

As the leading energy consumer in the world, America was right to take proactive steps to reduce our reliance on petroleum and set an example for the world.  These environmental groups are implicitly making the case for keeping U.S. oil demand and prices high, rather than displacing imported oil with biofuels.  Blocking the use of biofuels will not reduce global oil consumption, but rather increase it as America must look for more sources of oil, which too often comes from environmentally questionable practices like deep water drilling and tar sand conversation.

The EPA is currently facing another lawsuit from oil interests in a different court over the RFS2 standard (see Big Oil Pushes Back Against RFS2).

Image: Flickr/Big Grey Mare

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