API: Federal renewable fuel mandate causes more emissions

A federal mandate for renewable fuels is doing little to slash greenhouse gas emissions, according to the oil industry’s biggest trade group.

Recent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions tied to climate change “are the result of a decrease in vehicle miles traveled and improvements in vehicle fuel economy, not the renewable fuel standard,” said the American Petroleum Institute, which has been battling the mandate in the courts and on Capitol Hill.

Future projected declines in emissions also are tied to vehicle technology improvements, not the federal renewable fuel requirement, API said.

The trade group’s  comments were delivered to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has asked stakeholders to weigh in on the environmental effects of the 8-year-old mandate that requires refiners to blend an increasing amount of alternatives into petroleum-based fuels. Alternatives include corn-derived ethanol, advanced biofuel and biomass-based diesel.

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In a white paper issued earlier this month, the committee acknowledged the challenges in calculating the total greenhouse gas emissions over their entire lifecycle, from their initial production to their eventual combustion in cars and trucks.

Some environmentalists critical of the renewable fuel standard  say a full life-cycle emissions calculation should include the greenhouse gases tied to clearing land for agricultural use around the globe to replace the U.S. food production acres now used for ethanol crops.

“Diverting acres away from food production to RFS feedstock growth is expected to lead to increased food production elsewhere,” sometimes on newly cleared lands, the Energy and commerce Committee said. But the panel acknowledged that “the calculation of emissions attributable to indirect land use changes from producing the feedstocks” is “particularly controversial.”

The American Petroleum Institute relied on a National Academy of Sciences study and Environmental Protection Agency data to make the case that corn-grain ethanol — which has so far made up the bulk of renewable fuels under the mandate — almost always produces more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. The National Academy of Sciences’ research suggests that in 2022, corn-grain ethanol may have lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, as its producers make progress harnessing biomass for biorefinery heat.

But at least in the short term, according to the institute,  the fuel standard has meant bad news for carbon pollution. “In the near term, the RFS has increased greenhouse gas emission above the baseline gasoline,” the group said. “This suggests that while overall energy consumption in the transportation sector has decreased, associated reductions in greenhouse gases would likely have been higher had the RFS not been in place.”

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Not surprisingly, biofuels backers came to a different conclusion. In comments to the Energy and Commerce Committee, Fuels America said the renewable fuel standard is  helping to decrease the amount of oil in the nation’s transportation fuels. “We simply cannot address climate change if we do not reduce our consumption of oil, regardless of whether that oil comes from inside or outside of our nation’s borders,” the group said.

According to Fuels America’s calculations, the use of renewable fuel slashed greenhouse gas emissions by 33.4 million metric tons in 2012, the equivalent of removing 7 million cars and pickups from the road in one year. Future benefits are tied to other lower-carbon fuel alternatives that would be spurred by the renewable fuel standard, the group said.

Most unleaded gasoline sold in the United States contains 10 percent ethanol — though 15 percent and 85 percent blends, known as E15 and E85, also are approved for some cars and trucks. Higher blends would further help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Fuels America says, but the group blames “obstructionist tactics by the oil industry” for discouraging filling stations from making the products available.

Some refiners say they already have reached what they call  a “blend wall,” a threshold where adding the required volume of ethanol to gasoline supplies would result in ethanol blends exceeding the 10 percent cap approved for use in all vehicles. (E15 is limited to newer model years).

In response, lawmakers are considering making the first major changes to the renewable fuel requirement in five years, unleashing furious lobbying on the issue.

The Energy and Commerce Committee has begun a broad, bipartisan review of the renewable fuel standard, ahead of possible changes.

Read the API and Fuels America comments below.

API response on environmental effects of RFS

Fuels America response to Energy and Commerce Committee on environmental effects of RFS.