June 19, 2009 | General

Renewable Fuel Standard, Take 2

BioCycle June 2009, Vol. 50, No. 6, p. 44
Biomass Energy Outlook
Mark Jenner

ON May 26, 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a proposed rule in the Federal Register on implementation of Sections 201, 202, and 210 of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. Those sections are part of the Renewable Fuel Standard established by EISA. States the proposed EPA rule, “revised statutory requirements specify the volumes of cellulosic biofuel, biomass-based diesel, advanced biofuel, and total renewable fuel that must be used in transportation fuel each year, with the volumes increasing over time. The revised statutory requirements also include new definitions and criteria for both renewable fuels and the feedstocks used to produce them, including new greenhouse gas emission thresholds for renewable fuels.” These amended Renewable Fuels Standard rules, referred to as RFS2, establish eligibility of what can be counted in the mandated use of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022.
The regulation relies heavily on life cycle analyses (LCA), as well as direct and indirect influences on carbon emissions. This rule is very comprehensive, but misses the mark on providing a functional tool for guiding the U.S. to a future of low carbon emissions. The EPA narrowly restricts the feedstock definitions and relies far too heavily on the LCA underlying its assumptions. The result is that the true benefits of integrated biomass systems are not completely addressed.
The initial paradox is that although this rule focuses on a renewable liquid fuel equivalent (gallons), as proposed, it will drive biomass into other uses. In reality, biomass feedstocks can and will be converted into many things besides liquid fuels. If the goal of the new standards is to pull biomass feedstocks into the liquid fuel stream, then the process must be made easy.

The proposed rule also imposes serious limitations on eligible feedstocks. The most severe is on using biomass from federal lands. Paradoxically, a U.S. Forest Service paper identifies 190 million acres of federal lands that are at an increased risk of fire hazard due to the build up of vegetation. Left on the land, it is a forest fire fuel source. Federal land management agencies have developed a National Fire Plan to reduce this build up of fuels. However it is costly to remove this biomass fuel from the forests. Without the inclusion of biomass from federal lands in the RFS2 standards, the incentive to remove this undervalued resource from federal lands goes away. The loss of forest carbon to forest fires is a very inefficient release of carbon dioxide.
Biomass from the municipal solid waste stream is not explicitly included in the definitions of feedstocks for renewable fuels. The EPA has intentionally left it undefined. Existing legal definitions of biomass do not include organic materials that can be recycled. Unless there is additional clarification in the RFS2 standards, these existing statutes and regulations will take precedence over uses of solid waste as feedstocks for biofuels. Curiously, EPA acknowledges the technology developers that are developing biofuels using MSW as a feedstock who have been funded with U.S. Department of Energy money. Without explicit definitions that include these feedstocks, commercialization of these technologies will be difficult.

As we move towards an economy based on biomass, the tremendous gaps in our knowledge become more evident. More established industries have access to decades of historical data to assist in planning. In agriculture, for example, USDA literally has decades of production data and prices with which to forecast. Nearly all of the emerging biomass technologies and feedstocks have never been used before, so no historical data exists to use in planning.
The solution is to use what we do know to estimate what might happen. While this kind of constructed analysis isn’t as accurate as historical data, it’s generally much better than no data at all. Carbon footprints and LCAs are estimates of what might happen. They rely on historical data collected for one purpose (e.g., harvesting and chipping trees for paper production) to develop estimates of potential outcomes with the data used for another purpose (e.g., chipped wood for cellulosic ethanol production). Assumptions are used to impose limits on variations that can take place.
LCA is a linear analysis of all the carbon products and processes that occur from cradle to grave for various fuels. These analyses are invaluable as planning tools, but as regulatory standards they fall woefully short. EPA admits that it is not able to adequately model the economy-wide changes with a single analytical model. Still they have emission estimates that will become legal standards based on processes and technologies that do not exist today. Creating a regulatory framework based on constructed or make-believe reality is not good science – nor good policy. Technical change typically reflects the increase in efficiency over time. Yet it appears that in its proposed RFS2 rule, EPA merely extended current technology levels out in time, rather than try to estimate and incorporate some measure of technical change.
Another faulty concept is the reliance on direct and indirect land use changes on biofuel emissions. The indirect land use policies imply that there is some predictable relationship between biofuels production in the U.S. and land use change in foreign lands. This direct causal relationship simply does not exist. For example, there is no way to quantify which part of the soybean, the protein or the oil, is being used for animal feed, human food or biofuel production.
It’s true that this kind of comprehensive carbon policy has never been implemented before in the U.S. It is the right intention, but falls significantly short on delivery of a functional biofuels policy solution. We can and must do better.
Mark Jenner, PhD, operates Biomass Rules, LLC and has over 25 years of biomass utilization expertise. Burning Bio News is Jenner’s scorecard of bio-energy project adoption, available at

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