Watchdog dings EPA on ethanol impacts

Watchdog dings EPA on ethanol impacts

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not properly analyzed the environmental effects of its ethanol mandate, a watchdog report found Thursday.

The 2005 law creating the renewable fuel standard requires the EPA to write reports on the environmental impacts of the requirement to blend ethanol and other biofuels with gasoline, and to determine whether measures are needed to blunt the effects.

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But the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found the agency’s compliance with those provisions lacking.

“Not having required reporting and studies impedes the EPA's ability to identify, consider, mitigate and make policymakers aware of any adverse impacts of renewable fuels,” auditors concluded.

The OIG report issued Thursday is the latest development in the years-long debate over whether biofuels, and the federal requirement to use them, are worse for the environment than traditional fossil fuels.

When Congress created the program in 2005 and expanded it in 2007, supporters said that using fuels produced from plant matter would be environmentally beneficial, something that the corn industry, the Obama administration and ethanol supporters say is true.

But some environmental groups and ethanol opponents say that agricultural practices and other processes used to create ethanol result in increased pollution and harm to the ecosystem.

The watchdog report found that officials only completed one of the triannual impact reports in 2011 and never issued a report on whether air quality is “backsliding” due to biofuel mandates.

The EPA told auditors it has not completed another report because “the state of science has not changed enough with respect to lifecycle GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions to warrant revisiting its prior GHG determinations for the 2010 fuel sources,” referring to the year covered by that one completed report.

The OIG said that the EPA should at least have a method for determining whether another report on environmental effects is necessary.

In responding to the report, EPA regulators told the OIG that they would complete another review by 2017. But an air quality report and recommendations couldn’t be completed until 2024 at the earliest, the agency predicted.

“EPA is committed to successfully implementing the [renewable fuel standard] program and we take our statutory obligations seriously,” said EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison.

The American Council for Capital Formation, a business group that opposes the ethanol mandate, accused the EPA of trying to ignore the impacts of biofuels.

“By failing to conduct analysis as required by law, EPA has simply tried to ignore the overwhelming evidence of the harmful impacts of corn ethanol on the environment,” said George David Banks, the group’s executive vice president.

“Hopefully the EPA will keep its new pledge made to the IG and actually get back on track and meet its obligations under the law.”

The Renewable Fuels Association said the EPA should complete the reports that Congress required, but it is confident that the findings would be good news.

“We are confident that once EPA conducts these required studies, they will show that biofuels like ethanol are significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, even above the threshold reduction,” said Bob Dinneen, the group’s president.