At the end of October I went to Iowa for the grand opening of DuPont’s cellulosic ethanol facility. It will be the largest of its kind in the world, ultimately producing 30 million gallons of ethanol from corn stalks annually. This important milestone is a fruit of the much maligned Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, a policy passed in 2007 that is the subject of many misleading TV ads from the oil and ethanol industries airing in DC and elsewhere. It may come as no surprise that more valuable insight about our clean fuel future is being developed inside the factory than is available on political ads.
Green chemistry for clean fuels
The technology DuPont is starting up breaks down the non-digestible parts of plants into the sugars that are the basic building blocks with which we can produce ethanol today, and other fuels and bio-products in the future. These fuels and other products are currently made from oil; replacing them with sustainable low carbon substitutes is critical to building a low carbon chemical and fuel industry, which is why companies like DuPont are pursuing it. It’s also a key element of our comprehensive strategy to cut oil use and emissions from transportation fuel in the years and decades to come, which is why I take an interest in it.
In a past career I was involved in starting up new chemical process technology for very different products (computer chips instead of ethanol). I remember the excitement and rush of learning that comes when the preparation is done and the new factory is starting up. Suddenly there is real money on the line, more than $200 million in the case DuPont’s Iowa factory, and you have no choice but to solve the inevitable problems that arise during process scale-up.
Making progress on these challenges is urgent not just because of DuPont’s financial interests, although I am sure that is a major motivator to them, but also because cutting emissions from transportation and other sectors is urgently needed to stabilize the accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from oil and other fossil fuels that is bringing us ever closer to catastrophic climate change. Earlier this month the World Meteorological Organization announced that atmospheric CO2 concentrations have hit yet another record in their relentless upward climb.
Misleading ads from oil industry, sound familiar?
In this context it was depressing to get back to the DC suburbs to hear the oil industry flooding the airways with vacuous arguments about how to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. The oil industry has made repealing the RFS their top legislative priority, and their regional affiliate the Western States Petroleum Association is similarly focused on blocking or rolling back low carbon fuel standards in California and Oregon. They claim that with expanded domestic oil production we no longer need these cleaner fuels. Following their usual playbook they have released a slew of ads touting out-of-date and misleading studies during the presidential debates.
Here’s an excerpt from one of these studies, funded by the American Petroleum Institute (API) predicting that implementing the RFS will cause
[…] outrageously high consumer costs that are evident immediately, i.e, in 2015. The 2015 statutory requirement […] requires about a 30% reduction in gasoline and diesel volumes from expected demand in 2015. To achieve this reduction in gasoline and diesel demand requires that costs increase by roughly $90 and $100 per gallon more than today’s costs, respectively.
Not to be outdone, the ethanol industry is hitting back with its own ads, studies and bogus arguments including claims that the RFS is the “only federal law on the books combating climate change” and that EPA’s failure to finalize timely rules for the RFS “has caused net farm income to likely fall more than 50 percent in only two years.”
These absurd claims are based on the flimsiest of straw men and contribute nothing useful to the tired arguments the parties have been making for years. It is obvious to an informed observer that the ambitious timeline Congress set for scaling up cellulosic biofuels has proven far too optimistic. It is equally clear that even without the RFS corn ethanol will remain an important part of the gasoline blend and the agricultural economy. In light of this reality, and with no help from the regulated parties, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the unenviable task of figuring out how to implement the law in a manner that is realistic and makes steady progress on oil saving and climate goals. While the TV ads might make you think the EPA is deciding on the future of corn ethanol, the truth is the post-2015 RFS is focused on expanding the use of low-carbon advanced and non-food cellulosic biofuels.
Navigating obstacles on the path to cleaner fuels
The RFS is a tough program to implement, but EPA’s proposal is basically on target and I expect them to finalize something close to their proposal later this month. The RFS is an essential tool to make progress on cleaning up an important part of our fuel supply. We should certainly be doing more, but API argues we should do less. It’s also important to clarify that the RFS is by no means the only provision of the Clean Air Act that EPA is using effectively to reduce global warming pollution, with important standards for vehicle fuel economy, and power plants in place and standards for heavy-duty trucks and oil and gas wells in process.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been compelled to point out how unproductive this hyperbolic rhetoric is. It might seem obvious, but when an API funded ad tells you that the most important priority for fuels policy is stopping the RFS, and claims it has the interests of the environment or even the global food markets at heart, you should be very skeptical. The progress on cellulosic ethanol over the last few years is a tremendously important part of building the clean fuel technologies we need to cut oil use and emissions from transportation, and it would not have happened without the RFS.
I am convinced that the progress being made now inside the cellulosic ethanol plants at DuPont, Poet and Abengoa, and at nearby farms and in laboratories across the county are vastly more important than the sad nonsense posing as debate about the Renewable Fuels Standard in Washington DC and elsewhere.
Posted in: Biofuel
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.