Environmentalists shouldn't side with Big Oil against biofuels

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Moreover, today’s grain ethanol is producing the infrastructure – from innovative companies to blender pumps -- to develop and commercialize the next generation of advanced biofuels, which offer even greater advantages.

That’s why it’s so troubling that some environmentalists are siding with Big Oil, which they have correctly criticized for polluting our air and water, to gang up on American ethanol, which is both renewable and cleaner than gasoline.

As the saying goes, some of these environmentalists were against Big Oil before they were for it.

The latest of these biofuels-bashers is Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. His recent op-ed (“Fix the Broken Biofuels Mandate, The Hill, March 12) urges unspecified changes in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which commits our country to using increasing quantities of clean-burning renewable fuels.

While criticizing the RFS and higher ethanol blends in gasoline, Faber makes confusing – and contradictory – arguments: First, he recycles Big Oil’s attacks upon grain ethanol. Then, he says the RFS must be failing because of what he believes is the slow progress towards cellulosic (non-grain) ethanol. Lastly, he rounds out his attack on the RFS by warning that it requires what he considers costly investments in the very infrastructure – such as fuel pumps and flex-fuel vehicles – that’s necessary for advanced biofuels to be widely used.

Why would an environmentalist oppose today’s ethanol and also, in spite of his lip-service to advanced biofuels, the infrastructure that’s required for cellulosic ethanol to succeed? Well maybe, it’s because, before joining the Environmental Working Group, Faber was vice president for federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Together with the American Petroleum Institute), the Grocery Manufacturers Association is working to repeal the RFS.

For the great majority of rank-and-file environmentalists who aren’t beholden to Big Oil or Big Food, ethanol’s environmental advantages over gasoline are clear and compelling.

The most recent data, in a study published by Yale University’s Journal of Industrial Ecology, conclude that grain ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 48 to 59 percent when directly compared to gasoline and by 34 percent even when highly uncertain land-use emissions are added.
In fact, using the GREET (Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation) model developed by the Department of Energy, the 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol produced in 2012 reduced greenhouse gas emissions from on-road vehicles by 33.4 million tons. That’s equivalent to removing 5.2 million cars from the road– as many as in the entire state of Michigan.

Ethanol does more than lower greenhouse gas emissions. Ethanol contains 35 percent oxygen, resulting in more complete fuel combustion and thereby reducing harmful tailpipe pollution. Because it’s non-toxic, water-soluble and quickly biodegradable, ethanol also displaces toxic gasoline components such as benzene, a carcinogen.

Yes, advanced biofuels offer even greater advantages. But watering down or wiping out the RFS and opposing higher ethanol blends are the wrong ways to nurture the next generation of ethanol.

By promoting the production and use of grain ethanol, the RFS has helped to sustain the companies, the skilled workforce, the markets, the infrastructure and the stream of private investment that are essential for developing and commercializing advanced biofuels. Moreover, the RFS promotes the evolution of ethanol by requiring that 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels be blended into transportation fuels by 2022.

Thanks largely to the RFS, the cellulosic biofuels industry has facilities and projects under development in more than 20 states, representing billions of dollars in private investment. According to the Sandia National Lab, the US could produce 75 billion gallons per year of cellulosic biofuels by 2030.
We can get there from here, as long as environmentalists don’t join Big Oil in bashing biofuels and messing with the RFS.

Dinneen is president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, the trade association of the American ethanol industry.