House Hearing Questions Ethanol's Carbon Benefits

By Renee Schoof

Nov. 3 — Requirements for increasing amounts of biofuels to be blended into the transportation fuel supply are a “misguided mandate” that makes air quality worse and results in greater greenhouse gas emissions than produced from gasoline, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) said during a Nov. 3 hearing.

Bridenstine, who has called for a repeal of the renewable fuel standard (RFS), said the ethanol blending requirements were “based on outdated assumptions about gasoline demand, environmental impact and technological readiness” as he opened a Nov. 3 hearing of two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on the costs and benefits of the RFS over the past decade. Bridenstine is chairman of the Environment Subcommittee.

Much of the discussion at the hearing was about the environmental impacts and whether research in recent years has refuted older federally supported studies. The Environmental Protection Agency in May proposed annual increases in the amounts of ethanol that must be blended in gasoline in 2014, 2015 and 2016, but proposed levels lower than those set in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

The EPA's final rule, which is due by Nov. 30, is now under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget (211 ECR 211, 11/2/15).

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight, said the renewable fuel standard had “unintended consequences” and should be changed. Loudermilk, citing testimony at another hearing by Jason Hill, an associate professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota, who said that compared to gasoline, ethanol had higher lifecycle emissions of fine particulate matter (PM-2.5) and pollutants that contribute to higher ozone levels.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) defended the RFS, saying it was needed for energy security and to create a transition to advanced biofuels, which are lower-carbon energy sources. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) said many businesses in his rural district benefited from the ethanol requirements.

Ethanol Worse for Environment

Part of the hearing focused on work by John DeCicco, a mechanical engineer and research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, and others who have concluded that corn ethanol production and use results in more greenhouse gases than that of ordinary gasoline and that its production also has destroyed wildlife habitat and worsened water pollution.

“My research shows the renewable fuel standard has been harmful to the environment since its inception,” DeCicco said at the hearing.

Greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol in some cases are up to 70 percent higher than those of gasoline, DeCicco said. He said earlier studies, including Argonne National Laboratory's “Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET)” in 2008, made mistakes in how they accounted for how much carbon would be removed while corn plants grew. DeCicco said in most cases the land would be planted in other crops that also would have removed carbon from the air.

The environmental rationale for an increasing mandate for biofuels in the fuel supply “has not stood the test of time scientifically,” he said.

Biofuels Backed

Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, said DeCicco's research was flawed and was at odds with federal research. The RFS is still needed to reduce dependence on foreign oil, he said.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has allowed global crude oil prices to go lower as a “predatory strategy” intended to shrink the U.S. oil boom, Coleman testified. If oil production stabilizes, OPEC will reduce output so that crude oil prices increase, he said.

Since the U.S. will continue to need some foreign oil, consumers will pay higher prices, he said. “In essence, the RFS is a hedge against this market power,” Coleman said.

Coleman said companies now building cellulosic biofuels plants in the U.S. had first invested in corn ethanol. Companies will build the next advanced biofuels plants in other countries if Congress repeals or changes the renewable fuel standard, he said.

Food and Gas Prices

The price of gasoline blended with 10 percent ethanol— E10, the most common fuel—would increase by 15 cents to 30 cents per gallon if the volume requirements in the 2007 law went into effect in 2017, compared with the cost of the fuel if the EPA set requirements for 2017 consistent with what it proposed for 2016, Terry Dinan, a senior adviser at the Congressional Budget Office, testified.

Repealing the RFS would have essentially no effect on the 2017 price of E10 compared to prices under the EPA's proposed 2016 levels, she said.

Food prices would be nearly the same if the RFS was repealed or continued at the 2016 levels EPA has proposed, the CBO also reported .

The CBO concluded that the rising levels of biofuels required under the 2007 energy law “would be very hard to meet in future years” because cellulosic biofuel production is “complex and costly” and because the average concentration of ethanol in gasoline would have to rise above 10 percent, the maximum that can be used in older vehicles, Dinan said.

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