Congress, EPA threaten biofuels

More than two decades ago, when I would talk about renewable fuels, people thought I was nuts. Now ethanol is blended into all American gasoline to help it burn cleaner, and renewable fuels provide an unparalleled opportunity to create new jobs, decrease pollution and revitalize rural America. Unfortunately, policy decisions made by Congress and the administration threaten the future viability of the renewable energy industry.

In particular, two provisions in the expanded Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) are troublesome, and the way the EPA has chosen to implement them will hinder the development of the next generation of biofuels, making it almost impossible to meet the goals laid out in the RFS.

The expanded RFS requires that all biofuels produced from facilities built after the enactment of the 2007 Energy Bill achieve a reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. The calculations on lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for some biofuels take into account speculative predictions about worldwide indirect land use — changes that may not even take place. The EPA calculates the lifecycle emissions of each fuel, relative to the gasoline or diesel fuel it would replace, and includes emissions from all stages of fuel production. But for some reason, biofuels are uniquely charged for emissions from indirect sources, while gasoline is not.

Tremendous uncertainty remains when we try to measure indirect effects. This isn’t about pitting folks against one another. It’s about making sure that in our efforts to increase America’s energy independence, we don’t do more harm than good. We’ve got some big policy decisions to make, and we’ve got to make sure we’re asking the tough questions and using reliable information to inform our decision-making.

The EPA has promised to carry out a peer review process, and I wonder whether or not these reviews will be looking at more than just the numbers. It is my hope that in addition to reviewing whether EPA is using the best available models, that the experts will also examine whether the best available models are good enough to be used to make these very important decisions.  Modeling indirect land use is an extremely complex exercise with much room for error. When different models developed by different groups of economists are put together, errors can be compounded.

Our economic experts must be asked whether they have confidence that the results coming out of these models are reasonable representations of real-world impacts. It’s been said many times in the course of this debate that regulations need to be based on sound science, so let’s not forget that economics is a science as well, and ensure that economists’ concerns over accuracy and proper use of their work are not pushed aside.

Another major problem with the expanded RFS is the restrictive definition of renewable biomass. The definition includes stipulations that agricultural land must be in production in order for the biomass grown on it to qualify for the RFS and would severely cut back the use of a feedstock available to make next generation biofuels. This would prevent areas like reclaimed mine sites and brownfield sites from being utilized to grow biomass. If we continue with this very limited definition, Congress would be shortchanging a huge part of the country before we even get started, and hamper our efforts to meet the goals Congress and the president have laid out.

Last month, a bipartisan group of 28 members and I introduced a bill, H.R. 2409, that would finally fix the problems in the 2007 Energy Bill. H.R. 2409 would address the indirect land use provisions and the renewable biomass definition.

During these tough economic times, we should be doing more to aid this industry and encourage development rather than taking steps that would undoubtedly remove the incentive to invest in the next generation of biofuels.

It’s unfair to punish farmers and biofuel producers just because some people don’t like ethanol, and we on the Agriculture Committee will be working to get these problems fixed.

On these issues, we need to know more as we move forward and we need to make sure that we are not going to create new problems for second- and third-generation renewable fuels as we continue on the road to a cleaner environment and energy independence.

Peterson is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.