Setting The Table For The Big Score

The RFS is important and worthy of support, writes David VanderGriend. However, it should not be viewed as what defines the value of biofuels, a value which can only be realized if the industry can get fuels into the market.
By David VanderGriend | April 10, 2015

In baseball, they often refer to the leadoff man as the igniter, whose job is to get the offense going: get on base, start a rally and set the stage for a lot of runs. In many respects, that’s the role of the renewable fuel standard (RFS), to set the stage for a bigger score for biofuels. But rather than focusing on a big inning, the ethanol industry may be playing small ball as we await the final rulemaking renewable volume obligations (RVO). The U.S. EPA stated it intends to package 2014 with the 2015 and 2016 volumes in what could be one heck of an announcement by the end of June.

I am encouraged by numerous recent statements out of EPA that it remains committed to making the RFS all it can be. But at the same time, let’s not kid ourselves. Do we really think there are going to be any surprises? We know that the 2014 RVO will be exactly what was consumed and 2015 is not likely to be any different. EPA will be hard-pressed to do anything more than take what was used the first half of 2015 and multiply by two, so we probably know that number as well. Sure, there might be a little more due to an increase in E15, midlevel blends and E85. For 2016, there might be a slight increase, if total gasoline use goes up. But for now, it is clear we will wind up somewhere in the 14 to 15 billion-gallons-per-year range for corn ethanol. There may be another billion or two gallons in the export market, but would the corn ethanol industry be satisfied with a 17 billion-gallon cap, when the motor fuel market is 125 billion gallons plus? I certainly am not.

I have always viewed the RFS as an important building block, assuring a base market. Whether wearing my hat as CEO of ICM or as president of the Urban Air Initiative, or as a member of most ethanol trade organizations, I support the RFS. However, it should not be viewed as what defines the value of biofuels, a value which can only be realized if we get the fuel into the market.

How do we get access to the market? How do we maintain the RFS and build on it? The answer lies with carbon controls and protecting public health—the new value proposition.

One element Congress got right with the RFS was to reward fuels that reduce carbon emissions. While the corn cap is law and, to some extent, EPA's hands are tied, the carbon footprint of corn ethanol is demonstrably better than the credit given by EPA. Our work at ICM and other new, and constantly evolving, research clearly shows that corn ethanol can attain advanced biofuel carbon-reduction levels, one of the primary objectives of the RFS.

If refocusing on achieving carbon reduction is one way to create new demand, another is the critical issue of improving fuel quality and emissions of gasoline. Ethanol's greatest strength is its high octane. This is an issue of public health in that ethanol used in midlevel blends like E15 or E30 can replace some of the most harmful components of gasoline—if we have access to the market. At ICM and Urban Air Initiative, we have concluded that EPA is blocking access to the market for midlevel blends and we are challenging them.

In legal action along with the Energy Future Coalition, ICM has asked the courts to agree that the certification procedures adopted by EPA are keeping E30 out of the market. In another challenge, UAI is calling EPA out on its antiquated modeling used to guide states on how to control pollution that includes an unwarranted penalty for ethanol. Our research, supported by auto industry experts, clearly shows many of the negative emissions attributed to ethanol are, in fact, changes made to base gasoline. Splash blending ethanol always improves gasoline quality and EPA’s outdated models simply need to be updated. Why is this so important? Gasoline is the source of some of the most dangerous and harmful pollutants linked to a range of health and respiratory ailments, including lung disease and even neurological disorders. Infants, the elderly and expectant mothers are particularly at risk.

The RFS is the platform to launch and engage the environmental and health communities in this discussion. Let’s get past the RFS numbers game—as important as it is—and look at additional ways to reduce carbon and protect public health.

Author: David VanderGriend,
CEO, ICM Inc.; President, Urban Air Initiative