January 31, 2013

New EPA Rules Use Food Crop Biofuels to Make up for Cellulosic Shortfall

EPA Should Wait for Cleaner Fuels that Don't Compete with Food

WASHINGTON (Jan. 31, 2013) — The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today released proposed biofuel mandate volumes for 2013. The new requirements used so-called “advanced” food-based biofuels such as biodiesel and sugarcane to make up for a shortfall in cleaner cellulosic biofuels, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The volume requirements were adopted under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which was designed to promote renewable fuels that don’t compete with food supplies.

“EPA should exercise more discretion to reduce competition between food and fuel,” said Jeremy Martin, senior scientist with UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program, noting that markets for corn, sugar and vegetable oil are tight and thus any expansion of mandates for any food-based biofuels will put pressure on food prices and accelerate agricultural expansion and deforestation.

“This year’s drought reminded us that our food supplies can be easily disrupted,” Martin added. "Cellulosic biofuel production is behind schedule, but that doesn’t mean we need to accelerate mandates that threaten our environment and our food supplies.”

Originally proposed as a 2013 goal of a billion gallons, today’s revised proposal of 14 million gallons reflects current production capacity, but the industry is expected to grow. Two commercial cellulosic biofuel facilities are starting up, and others are under construction. UCS research suggests there is enough non-food feedstock in the United States to meet the total 36 billion gallon biofuel target under the RFS, but that doing so will take longer than previously expected due to the financial crisis and other factors.

“Cellulosic fuels still offer the best bet for replacing large amounts of oil without disrupting our food supplies,” Martin said. “Along with vehicle efficiency and other technology, cellulosic fuels can help us to cut our projected oil use in half over the next 20 years.”

Martin has written about the challenges EPA has faced in implementing the RFS and the stress biofuels put on food supplies on UCS’s blog, the Equation.

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.