GAO: Ethanol mandate unlikely to hit climate target

GAO: Ethanol mandate unlikely to hit climate target

The federal ethanol blending mandate is unlikely to meet the greenhouse gas reduction goals Congress envisioned when creating the program, government reports say.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a pair of reports Monday on the program, concluding that so-called advanced biofuels are not likely to reach the fuel market penetration that the renewable fuel standard (RFS) predicted; therefore, greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to fall as much as predicted.

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“It is unlikely that the goals of the RFS will be met as envisioned because there is limited production of advanced biofuels to be blended into domestic transportation fuels and limited potential for expanded production by 2022,” one of the reports on greenhouse gases said.

“In the absence of advanced biofuels, most of the biofuel blended under the RFS to date has been conventional corn-starch ethanol, which achieves smaller greenhouse gas emission reductions compared with advanced biofuels,” government researchers wrote.

Congress enacted the RFS in 2005 and expanded it in 2007, tasking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with implementing it and setting annual mandates for how much ethanol and other biofuels the nation’s fuel refiners have to blend into their traditional gasoline and diesel.

Reducing greenhouse gases was a primary goal of the program. Newly built ethanol plants were supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from gasoline, and advanced biofuel plants had a 50 percent target.

But old plants were grandfathered in. And production of advanced biofuels, which use biomass other than corn, has lagged, and was less than 5 percent of what Congress predicted it would be in 2015.

“Given current production levels, most experts we interviewed told us that advanced biofuel production cannot achieve the statutory targets of 21 billion gallons by 2022,” the GAO said, noting that advanced biofuel production was below 150 million gallons last year.

Additionally, constraints on fueling infrastructure and vehicle technology make it difficult to effectively increase ethanol concentrations in gasoline beyond the 10 percent blend that is now common.

The EPA has repeatedly issued annual waivers to exempt fuel refiners from the advanced biofuel mandates that Congress wrote into the law, citing the anemic market and production of the fuels.

Opponents of the ethanol mandate such as oil companies and the ethanol industry have repeatedly clashed over the climate change benefits of the biofuel program.

The oil industry says ethanol is environmentally destructive, adding to its argument that the mandate needs to be dramatically reformed or repealed. Ethanol producers say they’re helping the environment, and advanced biofuels will continue to grow, bringing more benefits.

The EPA’s inspector general is currently preparing a report on the climate impacts of ethanol.