As part of our continuing effort to provide current, topical information relating to renewable energy projects, RenewableEnergyLawInsider provides a series of posts from individuals with a wide range of experience and expertise. Today, Tracy Hammond from the Polsinelli Public Policy Group in Washington D.C. provides an update about the ongoing attention being paid to the Renewable Fuel Standard by the U.S. House of Representatives.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee this week completed 2 days of hearings on the renewable fuel standard (RFS), the federal mandate to blend 36 billion gallons of biofuels into the nation’s gasoline supply by 2022. Multiple industries and interests weighed in on the economic, environmental and technical impacts of the law. The hearing capped off an effort that began with a series of white papers the panel released this summer to gather information and feedback on the program.
The RFS is one of the largest and most controversial renewable energy program ever mandated by the federal government. Since its creation in the 2005 and expansion in 2007, interest groups have launched major lobbying campaigns both supporting and opposing the standard. It has suffered additional criticism since last summer’s record drought badly damaged the nation’s corn crop, raising questions about the viability of corn-based ethanol, the most common biofuel in the U.S.
For the first time since 2007, Congress is taking a very serious look at revising the standard. Although some, like the oil and refining sectors and their congressional allies, are calling for a full repeal of the law, there is not sufficient support for such a dramatic policy reversal. This sentiment was summed up best by senior Democrat Rep. Gene Green (D-TX), “I would probably vote for repeal of the RFS, but I don’t just see where we’re going to get there.”
There does, however, seem to be support—at least in the committee—for making changes to the standard to address rising ethanol credit prices and the 10% “blend wall,” or the technically feasible limit to the amount of ethanol that can be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. This is echoed by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), “You don’t have enough for a repeal, but you do have enough for a reform.”
Other Members complained that U.S. EPA, which administers the RFS program, sets excessively high targets for cellulosic biofuels. These fuels made from purpose-grown plants, ag waste, algae, energy grasses and other feedstocks that don’t conflict with food crops are 2nd generation biofuels and were hoped to eventually displace corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel. Unfortunately, the development of these fuels has been agonizingly slow. For example, the mandate calls for 1 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels made this year. Instead, EPA has proposed revising that number down to just 14 million—and that target will not likely be met by the advanced biofuels industry.
Senate Democrats from the Mid-Atlantic states are also wading into the debate. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) is working on legislation to reform the RFS, while senators from neighboring states, including Delaware and Pennsylvania, are urging the EPA to temporarily waive some blending requirements for obligated parties (refiners) in their states. Like their House counterparts, oil-patch Republicans in the upper chamber have also called for a full repeal.
As with many things involving Congress, this process will take a long time to play out. After 6 years of “fuel vs. food” fights, questions about the sustainability of corn ethanol, and the near non-existence of a cellulosic biofuels industry; however, we may be reaching a tipping point that will force lawmakers to make changes to the most contentious parts of the RFS both in order to appease critics and perhaps even prevent the standard’s total collapse.