EPA change shows folly of mandating cellulosic ethanol

Dec. 13, 2010
For the US renewable-fuel standards program, real-world events raise questions of credibility.

by Bob Tippee, Editor

For the US renewable-fuel standards program, real-world events raise questions of credibility. The Environmental Protection Agency's requirements for renewable fuels in 2011 make clearer than ever the delusions at work when Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA).

It was EISA that raised requirements for ethanol blended into gasoline to levels that soon will exceed the market's need for the material.

And it was EISA that required the growing use of a substance, cellulosic ethanol, that wasn't then and isn't now commercially producible even with a tax subsidy.

EISA started with a mistake, the imposition of energy-sales mandates, and went haywire.

It calibrated mandates to carbon emissions presumed to be associated with the required renewable fuels. As if that weren't complicated enough, it created overlapping categories for cellulosic biofuel, biomass-based diesel, and advanced biofuel, all within a renewable-fuel category now encompassing mostly ethanol from corn. One of the aims was to cap the use of corn-based ethanol. But the market will reach its capacity to use ethanol before the rising mandate reaches its statutory ceiling.

And with cellulosic ethanol, as with corn ethanol, miscalculation has compounded misjudgment. One of the arguments for requiring corn ethanol was to open markets for a counterpart with better environmental and energy performance made from cellulose, commercialization of which was assumed to be imminent.

But commercialization remains elusive. For 2011, EPA has trimmed the requirement for cellulosic ethanol to 6.6 million gal from EISA's 250 million gal, "based on an analysis of expected market availability," according to a press statement. EISA thus requires one fuel in quantities that can't be consumed and a related fuel in quantities that can't be supplied.

Congress seems little inclined to adapt law to reality. Doing so would require the admission of error by politicians.

But acknowledging congressional error is precisely what EPA's adjustment does. With cellulosic ethanol in 2011, Congress seems to have been wrong by a factor of 38.

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