Scientists ask EPA to delay indirect land use proposal

By Kris Bevill | October 06, 2008
Web exclusive posted Oct. 28, 2008 at 5:04 p.m. CST

Later this fall, the U.S. EPA is expected to submit for public comment a proposal for the implementation of the renewable fuels standard enacted in the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007 (RFS). The RFS will include a handful of complex changes to the current RFS policy enacted in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, including the expansion of volume mandates and the establishment of three new renewable fuel categories. One of the changes—the determination of greenhouse gas (GHG) lifecycle emissions from the production of biofuels, including any indirect land use changes—has already provoked a response from scientific experts and biofuel industry members.

An Oct. 23 letter sent to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson by biotechnology seed developers Ceres Inc. and Mendel Biotechnology Inc., along with several agricultural academic professors, addressed the group's concern about any policy that includes indirect land use changes. "We strongly believe that a requirement to account for indirect land use changes in the legislation was premature, as there are generally no accepted methods for determining indirect land use change, or for that matter, any indirect (market-driven) change, and there is no way to apply even current methods in any meaningful way to the choices a farmer makes," the letter stated. "In short, what the legislation requires is currently impossible."

The group argued that while direct land use change can easily be traced through the production, transportation and usage of fuels, an agreed-upon model to determine indirect land use change is far from being established. Because indirect change revolves around policy and market decisions, it's thought by some to be a consequence of a much larger global economy. Therefore creating a model to measure change is extremely difficult.

The letter suggested that the agency delay any rulemaking until further research can be conducted to properly determine the effects of indirect land use change.

Cathy Milbourn, an EPA senior press officer, said any EPA policy proposal is required to have an open public comment period for a minimum of 30 days before it is made a rule. Therefore, because a proposal has yet to be released, it is not possible for an indirect land use change policy to be implemented any time soon.

Furthermore, during a U.S. Senate Subcommittee earlier this year, Robert Meyers, EPA Office of Air and Radiation principal deputy assistant administrator, expressed doubt that the final RFS rulemaking would be complete by January as originally planned. He suggested that final rules would not be completed until mid-2009.

The California Air Resources Board is also considering a policy to consider indirect land use changes when determining GHG emissions. Members of the group to address the EPA also sent a letter to CARB requesting similar action on their part. Dr. Bruce Dale, a chemical engineering professor and associate director of the Office of Biobased Technologies at Michigan State University, signed both letters. As a member of the scientific life-cycle analysis community for the past 10 years, he told Ethanol Producer Magazine that both the EPA and CARB have the difficult tasks of developing emission estimates for which there are currently no standards. "We do not have the ability right now, technically, to measure the indirect land use change effects," he said.

Dale expressed concern that a rush to implement indirect land use policy could not only severely damage the developing second-generation ethanol industry but could ultimately lead to greater dependence on foreign oil.