Oil companies and refiners have been continuing the myth that the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) is broken.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) failure to issue a final 2014 rule for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and other missteps are being misinterpreted or misconstrued as a sign that the program is broken. Nothing could be further from the truth, the underlying program has worked as intended to spur investment in biotech innovation and commercialization in the biofuels space, reducing our reliance on foreign oil along with greenhouse gas emissions. Washington should stop trying to fix things that are not broken. EPA has had challenges administering the program and it got sidetracked this year by a spurious argument about how much of the transportation fuel market should be protected for the oil refining industry. Congress does not need to rewrite the law, but it should conduct oversight on EPA’s administration of the program with an eye to smoothing its function and ending the onerous administrative delays.  

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Because the RFS does indeed work, the advanced biofuel industry continues to make visible progress. The future we have hoped for is here. This year, for the first time, several new, large scale cellulosic biofuel facilities began operations. The RFS accelerated the development of cellulosic ethanol and many additional technologies for advanced biofuels and renewable chemicals, all of which contribute to America’s energy security and a cleaner environment. POET-DSM’s Project Liberty in Emmetsburg, Iowa, opened in early September and is ramping up to full production of 25 million gallons of ethanol a year. Abengoa opened its 25 million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol facility in Hugoton, Kansas, in October and is also ramping up production. The technology for both facilities was in development for nearly a decade and will continue to be perfected in these first-of-kind facilities.  And INEOS Bio began operating its 8 million gallon per year facility in Vero Beach, Florida, at the beginning of the year. Such successes will help America reduce its dependence on foreign oil from the volatile middle-east. 

Just as these companies were bringing decade-long projects to fruition, EPA proposed a change to the RFS methodology that threatened to bring the industry’s visible progress to a halt. The agency’s year of indecision over finalizing the rule created a damaging atmosphere of uncertainty for advanced biofuel producers, undercutting investment in the sector. Further, the agency’s delays in administering other aspects of the program – notably, approval of new pathways for producing cellulosic biofuels – blocked more companies from reaching the market. EPA must administer the program more efficiently. Its attempt to change the program to benefit the oil industry was unwarranted. And continued uncertainty about the future of the program will only further starve the advanced biofuel industry of necessary investment. 

Let’s face it: politics and business are full contact sports. But no one should be fooled when the oil industry now calls for repeal or reform of the RFS. A drawn out reform process would only serve to lengthen the delay in administration of the program, prolong the atmosphere of uncertainty for investors and continue to inhibit further development of advanced biofuels. It is anti-competitive for the oil industry to advocate rolling back progress by the advanced biofuel industry. To move forward, advanced biofuel producers need stable policy that ensures access to the market over time; that is the prerequisite for continued investment in advanced biofuels. Consistent implementation of the RFS is what we’ve needed all along. 

Commercializing new technology is not easy or fast. Companies have invested over $6 billion in R&D and commercialization efforts to build an advanced biofuel industry in the United States.  Do we really want to walk away from that now? The claim that the RFS needs reform is a distraction and a canard. The oil refining industry protests that fuel efficiency standards and falling gasoline use in the United States should limit the amount of biofuel the United States uses. Congress did not intend to codify the so called “blend wall” and require only 10 percent biofuels in our gasoline. On the contrary, Congress designed the RFS to help push oil refiners and retailers to move beyond the blend wall. In addition, gasoline use actually jumped by about 2 billion gallons in 2014, current low oil prices will probably continue to drive additional transportation fuel use in 2015. Simply put, the RFS was not intended to preserve market share for the oil refining industry; it was meant to be a game changer if we will only let it work. 

We do not need legislative RFS reform, but Congress can and should encourage EPA to get back on track with appropriate administration of the RFS as a number of key Congressional leaders did over the past year, including a bipartisan group of 31 Senators who urged EPA to fix the methodology in public comments last January. The agency’s delays in approving new technologies and new energy crops are approaching two years. All new biofuel technologies require certification by EPA that they meet the program’s required lifecycle greenhouse gas reductions. Currently, more than 30 new biofuel pathways are awaiting agency review and approval. EPA approved two pathways in July this year, enabling more than 17 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel to be brought to market between August and October this year. The ongoing delay for other pathways is an obstacle to progress and to meeting the program’s goals. 

EPA’s ongoing delays in administering the RFS undermine the emerging advanced biofuel industry. Big oil’s calls to reform the program only serve to lengthen the delay in administering the program and achieving its goals. The advanced biofuel industry needs the RFS to continue to work; it does not need further delays through attempts to fix what isn’t broken. 

Greenwood served in the House from 1993 to 2005. He is currently CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.