On Tuesday, July 25, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing examining the future of biofuels and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). According to Emily Skor, chief executive officer of Growth Energy, biofuels added $42.1 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016 and supported nearly 340,000 U.S. jobs. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent compared to conventional gasoline, and advanced biofuels could reduce emissions upwards of 90 percent, according to research from Argonne National Laboratory.
Ethanol Production Has Grown Exponentially in Last Decade
In 2009, the U.S. produced 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol, but is expected to produce over 15 billion gallons this year. Many in the biofuels industry attribute this growth to the RFS, which was enacted by Congress in 2005 to diversify the U.S. fuel supply. Skor stated that the RFS sets a “long-term predictable energy strategy” to increase biofuels in the fuel supply, encouraging investment and innovation in biofuels.
But as the industry advances, some want to reduce federal support for biofuels and eliminate the RFS. According to John DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, biofuels have higher carbon emissions than petroleum. DeCicco said this is because biofuel production has led to the expansion of croplands, and changes in land use release carbon into the atmosphere. However, credible research has found the opposite to be true. For example, a 2017 report issued by the USDA states that “despite the increase in corn ethanol production, deforested land in Brazil decreased over the same period.”
Biogas – A Recent Success under RFS
In 2014, the EPA also approved biogas as a cellulosic feedstock under the RFS. Currently, the biogas is converted to compressed renewable natural gas (CRNG) and is used for vehicles. There is also a proposal for a biogas to electric pathway under the RFS, which would count biogas being used to refuel electric vehicles.
Biogas allows farms, dairies, and industries to use their own organic waste to produce energy, requiring no additional cropland. Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL) noted that with biogas, a dairy farm in his district generates more energy than the farm is able to use. Currently, biogas is over 90 percent of the cellulosic fuels category.
Biofuels Opposition Spills Over to Farm Bill Debate
Nick Loris, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, argued that biofuels have hurt rural America and low-income families with rising costs of land and food. Though according to Skor, ethanol production has stabilized U.S. corn prices, which are now lower than they were before the RFS was implemented. Ethanol and its co-products also provide a market for U.S. farmers. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-IL) said in his fairly rural district he “sees the real results of biofuels innovation,” adding that “rural communities and local jobs have been enhanced by ethanol and biofuels.”
On July 26, Environment Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) introduced the FUEL Reform Act (Farewell to Unnecessary Energy Lifelines) which would eliminate the Farm Bill’s Energy Title (IX), which provides loans and grants to farmers, ranchers and small businesses to encourage investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and the production of renewable bioproducts such as fuels and chemicals. According to Biggs, “The biofuels subsidies in the farm bill don’t benefit the market; instead, they pervert it. If biofuels succeed, it should be based on their benefit to our nation’s energy economy.” The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Gohmert (R-TX), Trent (R-AZ), and Jones (R-NC).
Similarly, both the House and Senate appropriations bills significantly reduce funding for renewable energy programs. This includes the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance for production and utilization of biomass for heat, power, biobased products or advanced biofuels.
At Tuesday’s hearing, while DeCicco argued biofuels are not actually renewable, Paul Gilna from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory argued that fossil fuels are a finite resource, and “we need a diversity of options for the consumer for fuels.”
Author: Sara Taginawa
For more information:
- Examining Advancements in Biofuels: Balancing Federal Research and Market Innovation, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
- FY2018 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, S1603, Senate Appropriations
- FY2018 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, House Appropriations