EPA Should Do More to Reduce Competition Between Food and Fuel Crops

Published Aug 6, 2013

WASHINGTON (August 6, 2013)—The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) announcement today that it would allow food-based biofuels to make up the shortfall in cellulosic ethanol production this year was a missed opportunity to reduce pressure on food supplies and curb the clearing of forests for farmland, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said today. However, UCS experts are encouraged by EPA’s statement that it plans to reduce food based biofuel volumes in 2014 and urges the agency to act on this commitment as quickly as possible. 

The science advocacy group submitted comments to EPA earlier this year urging the agency to exercise the flexibility provided by Congress in implementing the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) to reduce competition between food and fuel while continuing to encourage the commercialization of the non-food cellulosic biofuel industry.

The RFS was designed to promote renewable fuels that do not compete with food supplies. Unfortunately, EPA’s decision calls for so-called “advanced” food-based biofuels such as biodiesel and sugarcane ethanol to make up for a production shortfall in cleaner cellulosic biofuels this year. But UCS is optimistic the agency will correct the problem for 2014. In the announcement today, EPA stated its plans to reduce the advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel mandates in 2014 to reflect the slower-than-expected pace of cellulosic biofuel commercialization.

“We have a responsibility to ensure we move towards cleaner fuels that won’t strain food supplies, accelerate agricultural expansion and drive deforestation,” said Jeremy Martin, a senior scientist with UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program. “The agency should revisit the overall mandate structure and set reasonable targets for the duration of the program -- not just one year’s worth -- to ensure we are meeting that responsibility.”

Markets for corn, sugar and vegetable oil are tight and thus any expansion of mandates for food-based biofuels will put pressure on food prices, forcing the expansion of agricultural land into forested areas.

“EPA has the authority to do what is right and prevent accelerating the expansion of food based biofuels such as sugarcane ethanol and biodiesel,” Martin said. “Cellulosic fuels still offer the best bet for replacing large amounts of oil without disrupting our food supplies.”

Today EPA also extended the deadline to comply with the 2013 standards by four months, to June 30, 2014.

When created in 2007, the RFS contained a 2013 goal of 1 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol. While the EPA’s decision to reduce the mandate reflects the state of current production capacity, the industry is scaling up rapidly and will continue to grow in the years to come. Ineos, for example, recently began commercial-scale production at a refinery that is turning yard and vegetative waste into fuel. Along with vehicle efficiency and other technologies, cellulosic fuels can help the country cut its projected oil use in half over the next 20 years.

UCS research suggests there is enough non-food material in the United States, including wastes and fast-growing grasses, to meet the total 36 billion gallon biofuel target under the RFS. While progress has been slower than originally hoped in 2007, UCS believes the RFS is still moving production in the right direction. But to make the RFS work, EPA needs to update their analysis and targets. 

Martin has written about the critical decisions facing EPA over the future of biofuels on UCS’s blog, the Equation. He has also testified on biofuels policy at two recent congressional hearings.