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EPA proposes new renewable fuels rules as part of Obama biofuels push

The US Environmental Protection Agency issued proposed new renewable fuels regulations for 2010 and beyond on May 5 as part of a broader Obama administration initiative.

US President Barack H. Obama also issued a directive forming a biofuels inter-agency working group to be chaired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. The president also announced that another $786.5 million from the recently enacted federal recovery and reinvestment act will be available for biofuels research and development and for biofuel refineries.

The new renewable fuels regulations were outlined in a proposed rulemaking notice on the Renewable Fuel Standard. They outline EPA's strategy for increasing the supply of renewable fuels as mandated by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. EPA would establish four renewable fuels categories (cellulosic biofuels, biomass-based diesel, advanced biofuels, and total renewable fuel).

The proposal would require 36 billion gal of renewable fuels be produced annually, 16 billion gal of which would have to be cellulosic biofuels and 1 billion gal of which would have to be biomass-based diesel. At the most, 15 billion gal of the renewable fuel mandate could be met by corn-based ethanol and other conventional biofuels.

Comparable reductions

For the first time, some renewable fuels would have to achieve greenhouse gas reductions comparable to the gasoline and diesel fuel they displace. Refiners would have to meet the requirements to receive credit toward meeting the new standards, according EPA. It said that thresholds for new categories would be 20% less GHG emissions for renewable fuels produced from new facilities, 50% less for biomass and advanced biofuels, and 60^ less for cellulosic biofuels.

The proposed regulations also would address the greenhouse gas lifecycle issue for the first time. If adopted, EPA would solicit peer review analysis of methods to measure various fuels and feedstock combinations' GHG impacts, including indirect emissions from land use changes, before implementation.

Lifecycle emissions include emissions from growing, harvesting, and transporting the biomass and from producing and transporting the fuel, according to the US Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office.

"With land use changes included, EPA proposed to allow only the five most sustainable process pathways for producing ethanol from corn starch to qualify as renewable fuels, while ethanol produced from sugar in a biomass-fueled facility can qualify as an advanced biofuel. Likewise, biodiesel from virgin plant oils qualifies as a renewable fuel, while biodiesel can qualify as an advanced biofuel," EERE said in a May 6 newsletter posted at its website.

EPA will accept public comments on the proposed regulations, which it expects to put into effect on Jan. 1, 2010, for 60 days following their publication in the Federal Register. Several groups and individuals responded immediately.

'Questions unresolved'

National Petrochemical and Refiners Association President Charles T. Drevna said that while the trade group plans to comment more specifically, "the questions of commercial viability, product liability, and the lack of adequate scientific review with regard to mandated increase quantities of ethanol remain unresolved.

"We hope more light will be shed on these problems during the comment period, and trust that EPA will seriously and transparently consider the concerns raised by fuel, public health, environmental and engine manufacturing interests as it proceeds toward finalizing guidelines for RFS implementation," he continued.

Renewable Fuels Association President Bob Dineen said that the fuel ethanol trade association welcomes debate on indirect GHG impacts. "The science of market-mandated, secondary impacts is very young and needs more reliance on verifiable data and less reliance on unproven assumptions. Done correctly, such an analysis will demonstrate a significant carbon benefit is achieved through the use of ethanol from all sources," he said.

Steffen Mueller, principal research economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Energy Resources Center, said that he was encouraged by EPA's announcement that its treatment of indirect land use would be subject to scientific review. "Based on the limited body of science that exists, our land use studies, and our most recent work on satellite imaging used to assess land use impact, it is clear that additional time is required before indirect land use rules can be applied with any certainty," he said.

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