The EPA has announced its intention to mandate more biofuel use as part of the U.S. reaching its climate change mitigation goals. In late December, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed to increase the amount of ethanol and other biofuels that must be blended into the U.S. fuel supplies over the next three years. Renewable fuel providers and farm groups welcomed the move, but environmentalists and oil industry groups were not in favor.

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Why biofuels can be controversial

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement that this proposal supports low-carbon renewable fuels but is seeking public input on ways to strengthen the program.

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“With this proposal, EPA seeks to provide consumers with more options while diversifying our nation’s energy mix,” he said.

But biofuels are used in place of going all electric for vehicle propulsion, something that reduces the sustainability of transportation and delays targets of net-zero emissions for CO2, something that is critical for preventing runaway climate change in the next few decades. Environmentalists are concerned that the use of more renewable biofuels will give a false sense of complacency when the more important goal is to push transportation and grid power to all-electric sourced from 100% clean energy sources, including wind and solar, as soon as possible.

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Biofuel incentives pull fuels from waste sources

What is encouraging about the proposal is that it takes into account the source of biofuels, pulling from waste sources such as farms and landfills, as well as renewable biomass like wood to generate electricity for charging electric vehicles. This is the first time the EPA has set biofuel targets on its own instead of following guidelines from Congress. Pulling fuel sources from waste allows the fuel to make use of material that would otherwise create emissions on its own or pollute the air or groundwater with runoff chemicals and CO2 or methane, both potent greenhouse gases.

Biofuels disrupt fuel prices, food supply and damage older cars

The goal of the existing Renewable Fuel Standard is to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, expand the U.S. fuel supply, strengthen energy security and reduce fuel prices at the same time. Ethanol is an essential part of the Midwest economies at this time, and consumes 40% of the nation’s corn supply. Environmentalists have criticized this as well, because biofuels sourced from food crops, like corn, compete with food crops and drive up food prices or create a scarcity of corn for the food supply.

Critics argue that growing extra corn is an ecological and climate detriment because this fosters unsustainable farming practices. The oil industry dislikes ethanol mandates because they constrain free market prices and limit consumer choice. Higher biofuel ratios in gasoline for ICE cars can also damage older vehicles that are not designed for this fuel blend.

The future of biofuels

“As the administration is working to address climate change, we’ve long known that biofuels will play an important role in reducing greenhouse gases while having the added benefit of providing expanded opportunities for farmers,” National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said in a statement.

Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, told the media that the EPA’s plan creates a “clear pathway for sustainable growth for our industry when it comes to the production and use of low-carbon fuels like ethanol.” He said it also boosts the industry’s push for year-round sales of gasoline containing a 15% ethanol blend, as well as sales of the 85% ethanol blend E85 that only works in cars designed for flex-fuels.

Environmentalists are not convinced. “This is a toxic plan directly at odds with the Biden Administration’s commitment to Environmental Justice,” said Sarah Lutz, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, in a statement. “Charging electric vehicles with forests and factory farms should be a non-starter.”

Targets to hit for improving emissions

The EPA wants to set the total target for all kinds of renewable fuels at 20.82 billion gallons for 2023, including 15 billion gallons from corn ethanol. The target would increase to 22.68 billion gallons in 2025, including 15.25 billion gallons of corn ethanol. The plan calls for more cellulosic biofuels, which are biomass-based diesel and other biofuels made from fibrous plant materials.

Cooper of the Renewable Fuels Association said there is likely no way to meet the proposed higher targets without more use of E15 and E85 instead of the conventional 10% ethanol mix. He wants the EPA to support the legislation introduced recently by U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska to allow year-round sales of E15 ethanol, which are currently prohibited during the summer due to concerns that they add to smog in high temperatures.

It’s clear the environmentalist critiques are valuable to the conversation, however, since we are not able to switch overnight to an all-renewables, all-electric grid, biofuels may play a role in the conversion over to more sustainable fuels that lead to clean energy production. It’s just a matter of getting the timing right and the ratio set to avoid further environmental damage that could be avoided.

The EPA is opening this plan to public comment and will hold a hearing on the matter in January 2023.

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