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Revisiting the RFS, Part 1: It’s Good, Now Here’s How to Improve It

Tuesday’s House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing pitted environmentalists, corn producers, oil refiners, grocery manufacturers, and renewable fuel advocates against one another in a contentious debate over the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard. The RFS—a legislative mandate which requires a certain amount of renewable fuels (mostly corn-based ethanol at present) be blended into the U.S. motor-vehicle fuel supply—is facing new attacks from critics who contend that growing corn for fuel instead of food is partly to blame for the recent spike in food prices both in the U.S and abroad, raising concerns about increased poverty, food storage, and security. Things came to a head on April 25 when the Texas Governor Rick Perry sent a proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency, which runs the RFS program, to waive half of the nine-billion-gallon mandate for this year.

Amid growing controversy, Subcommittee On Energy and Air Quality Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA) called the hearing to revisit the RFS just five months after Congress increased the mandate as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 which passed at the end of last year. The polarized hearing left committee members with a wide array of considerations to mull over as they decide the fate of the RFS in the coming months. To make sense of it all, Science Progress breaks down the hearing to discuss its varying themes. First up, what’s right with the RFS and ways to make it better.

The hearing opened up with testimony from Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) who introduced her bill, H.R. 5236, better known as the Renewable Biomass Facilitation Act. The bill intends to expand the RFS to allow woody biomass collected from both federal and private forests to be used in the production of biofuel that would count towards the RFS. Woody biomass—the byproducts of forest management practices—are usually burned or left to rot, releasing carbon and methane into the atmosphere and could be put to better use as feedstock for biofuels, she argued. Most committee members used their allotted time to heap congratulations on Rep. Sandlin and pledge support for her bill. Using residual agricultural and forestry biomass as biofuel feedstock would avoid competition with food crops.

Committee members then heard from Robert Meyers, associate assistant administrator at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation who touted the President’s proposed Alternative Fuel Standard, which would replace the RFS in 2010. The AFS would include alternative, but non-renewable fuels such as natural gas and coal-to-liquid (which is a boondoggle), hydrogen, and plug-in hybrids, in addition to those renewable fuels already included in the RFS. While the AFS ups the required amount of alternative fuels in the country’s fuel supply, it gives the EPA discretion to adjust or waive requirements to protect the economy or environment from any detrimental impacts of biofuel production. He also revealed that the EPA’s report on the environmental and health impacts of biofuels—requested by Congress in 2005—will be released in the coming weeks.

Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council, praised the RFS for its forward-looking approach, but pressed Congress to ensure proper safeguards are in place to protect the environment and food prices. He commended the RFS for properly defining lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for biofuels to include the entire production process, as well as land use changes, which can severely alter the effectiveness of biofuels in reducing GHG emissions. He noted how the RFS requires the vast majority of new biofuels derived from cellulosic biomass to reduce lifecycle GHG emissions by 60 percent, a step away from a “more is better” policy to a “better is better” policy.

Greene recommended that Congress push the EPA to study environmental consequences of biofuels to ensure that science drives policy, not politics. He asked Congress to adopt a cap-and-trade program as part of a comprehensive approach to reduce GHG emissions and to reform the current ethanol tax credit to be technology-neutral and performance-based. Such an approach would incentivize biofuel innovation and keep Congress from picking the winners and losers in the biofuel marketplace, he argued.

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