Obama promotes biofuels in bid to boost economy, climate

McClatchy NewspapersMay 5, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced plans to boost the use of biofuels to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and break the country's dependence on foreign oil.

The plan to increase the use of new biofuels would reduce petroleum use by 11 percent in 2022, add jobs and significantly cut climate-damaging emissions, administration officials said. If the country does nothing to curb oil consumption, oil use would increase by 40 percent by 2030 and emissions of heat-trapping gases would rise by a similar amount.

"Our economy is at the mercy of foreign oil producers, and everybody feels that when it hits us at the pump," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said.

The president's plan calls for $786.5 million in stimulus funding for new refineries that would make advanced biofuels and for research. The administration also will require a complete review of the greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels and for the first time will require that new biofuels emit less than the gasoline and diesel fuels they'll displace. The required reduction ranges from 20 percent to 60 percent, depending on the type of biofuel.

The EPA will require fuel refiners and importers to guarantee that a percentage of their fuel is from renewable sources. The percentage will increase each year until the country is using 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022.

"It's another opportunity for producers to profit," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "What the president wants is for all rural America to be able to participate. We will look at woody biomass, municipal waste, algae — a series of things that can be created in all parts of the country."

The steps announced Tuesday spell out how the country will reach goals set out in the 2007 energy law.

The Department of Energy's research spending will be used to help its labs as well as universities and private companies improve biofuels for vehicles and aircraft.

Obama also created a biofuels group made up of Vilsack, Jackson and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Its mission will be to develop a market for biofuels, increase the use of flex-fuel vehicles and come up with new policies that promote environmentally sustainable use of the plants that are needed for biofuels.

Obama directed the Agriculture Department to help build bio-refineries, convert fossil fuel refineries to renewable fuels and help farmers grow crops for fuels. The department also will help renewable-fuel companies get credit to see them through the recession.

Agricultural industry groups wanted the EPA to lower the renewable-fuel standard by ignoring land-use changes, but the agency refused. Land-use changes for biofuel production occur, for example, when a forest is cut down to make a cornfield as demand for land for planting biofuels crops increases, thus increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. The difference in greenhouse gas emissions is substantial; in some cases more than half the emissions are from land-use changes.

The Renewable Fuels Association, a lobby group, objects to the EPA's inclusion of land-use changes in its calculations. Its president, Bob Dineen, said it would be "participating aggressively" during an upcoming 60-day review period to make its views known before the rule becomes final.

Jackson said she'd consider comments from the public and would get a peer review of the scientific basis for the land-use changes as part of the emissions calculation. The EPA calculated the greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels by looking at everything from growing the feedstock to processing it into fuel and using the fuel in vehicles.

However, the new emissions standards don't apply to the biggest source of biofuels by far in the U.S. today: ethanol from corn. The 2007 energy law grandfathered in all corn ethanol plants that were in use or under construction before the law went into effect. Those plants are expected to produce most of the 15 billion gallons of conventional ethanol per year that the law calls for by 2022.

It also requires the use of 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels, which would be made from such nonfood sources as corncobs, grasses or algae.

Any future corn-ethanol plant would have to produce fuel that emits 20 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline does when the fuel's entire life cycle is taken into account. The EPA plans to require that advanced biofuels have 40 percent to 60 percent lower emissions.

According to EPA data released Tuesday, when calculated over a 30-year time frame corn ethanol produced with the most energy-efficient methods reduces overall greenhouse-gas emissions by 18 percent compared with gasoline or diesel fuel, but when coal is used to make the corn-based ethanol, emissions are 34 percent more than they are from those conventional fuels.

Nathanael Greene, the director of Renewable Energy Policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said that the EPA had taken "an important step towards getting biofuels right" by making sure that the new fuels would be significantly less of a source of greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline was today.

Greene said it would be important to make sure that developing biofuels didn't mean cutting down forests that were needed for other purposes, such as wildlife habitat. He said that a proposed renewable-electricity standard that's before Congress, which would require that a percentage of the nation's electricity come from renewable sources, also would increase demand for biomass, or material made from plants and animals.

ON THE WEB

The presidential directive establishing a Biofuels Interagency Working Group and the EPA's notice of a proposed rule-making on the renewable fuel standard

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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