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EPA Request for 15 Percent Ethanol (E15)

The Union of Concerned Scientists began its Smart Bioenergy Initiative—a guide to sustainable development of bio-based energy and fuels—to show that the use of biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel can reduce our dependence on gasoline and help move us to a clean energy future. But not all biofuels are created equal, and today’s food-based biofuels, such as corn ethanol, deliver few if any benefits to our warming climate.

To address global warming we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions from all sectors of the economy. A Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) would seek to reduce global warming pollution from fuels used in transportation. In order to ensure a lower carbon path for biofuels, UCS advocates for LCFS to include rigorous lifecycle carbon tracking of all transportation fuels. While an LCFS has yet to pass at the federal level, a revised version of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) passed as part of the 2007 Energy Bill. By setting global warming pollution standards for renewable fuels and including a full lifecycle carbon tracking system, the RFS has the potential to lower global warming pollution from cars and light trucks by as much as 6 percent in 2022, while displacing about 15 percent of U.S. projected gasoline consumption.

To deliver these results, we need to move beyond food-based biofuels to better options. So called “cellulosic” biofuels that can be made from non-food sources of biomass such as grasses and agricultural waste could, if developed properly, take a big bite out our carbon footprint from the fuels sector.

While we need to make this transition quickly, we need to be careful and let science be our guide, so that we avoid pitfalls that can derail our progress. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is doing important analysis to understand which biofuels deliver the biggest climate benefits, and the Department of Energy (DOE) is testing cars, boats, and lawnmowers to determine the public health impacts of increasing the amount of ethanol blended into conventional gasoline from the current 10 percent limit. But the ethanol industry is trying to preempt the science with its request for permission to increase the ethanol blend to 15 percent before the studies are completed.

The federal Clean Air Act has clear guidelines for what data is required to approve higher blends, and the EPA has been coordinating with the DOE to obtain this data. They expect to complete testing in 2010 that could be used to support a determination on a request for higher blends at that time. The ethanol industry’s petition requires the EPA to make a determination before the data is available, subverting the science-based agency process. 

The EPA’s draft global warming pollution regulations for biofuels, as part of the federal RFS, are completed, and their methodology could play a crucial role in determining the most scientifically sound path to a lower-carbon fuel future. But, again, interests in conventional biofuels have been pushing the EPA to modify their results or delay implementation of important parts of their methodology.

The EPA should therefore reject the E15 petition as a premature, unnecessarily piecemeal approach, and instead focus its energies on developing a comprehensive implementation plan for the RFS that will ensure that increased use of biofuels helps to reduce global warming pollution, while protecting air quality and public health.

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