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2018 was quite a year for the biofuels and bioproducts industries. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that refiners will be required to blend record levels of low-emission biofuels into their gasoline under the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has taken bold steps to open up the path for gasoline to potentially be produced with 15 percent ethanol year-round — a change long-sought by producers. And in November, a letter from the Department of Energy, the EPA and the United States Department of Agriculture to Congress laid out a plan to encourage the use of efficient and carbon-neutral products made from woody biomass. In particular, it highlighted how producing materials, fuels and power from trees can encourage sustainable forestry and reforestation, help rural economies and reduce emissions.
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The importance of these developments should not be underestimated. They are a clear indication that the administration recognizes the value of forest industries to our national economy, in particular to rural communities that all too often have missed the economic opportunity available to other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, the new Democratic House majority seems eager to take aggressive steps to combat climate change, such as establishing a select committee on climate change and the much-discussed Green New Deal. Removing regulatory obstacles to sustainably produced biofuel and biomass products offers a perfect bipartisan first step in that direction.
But there is much more to be done in order to maximize the opportunities for biomass as a viable renewable energy source — one that is central to America’s low-carbon energy future.
With an administration that is actively looking for ways to increase American energy exports and help rural economies flourish and a House majority committed to curbing pollution and climate change, the biofuels and bioproduct industries offer a chance to support all those goals at once.
Chief among these bipartisan priorities should be expansion of the RFS pathways. Quite simply, the emergence of new biomass processing technologies means that it is time for an update of the decade-old regulations. We now have the technology to turn vast amounts of excess timber and forest waste into renewable, sustainable fuel.
This doesn’t just include the Southeast, where a glut of timber has sent many landowners in search of alternative revenue streams, but also the West, where wildfire management efforts produce vast quantities of brush and small trees that have to be disposed of somehow. To spur innovation within the forest bioproducts industry and increase the potential for high-value energy production, the EPA must finalize approvals for fast-growing tree species like hybrid poplar, willow, and southern pine to be included in the RFS.
Quick and decisive action represents a win-win-win scenario for all involved, leaving foresters, communities and the environment better off. This simple regulatory action has been approved by Congress and would cost taxpayers nothing but has languished until now due to a lack of urgency. Now that forms a perfect starting point for action on which both sides can agree.
Next, the federal government should amend the complex rules on co-processing and bio-intermediates that require biofuel processing at a single facility to qualify for RFS credits. This needlessly restricts the use of efficient localized pre-processing and centralized refineries and makes it harder to economically produce biofuels and products.
While this update and the fuel pathway expansion were both part of the previously proposed Renewables Enhancement and Growth Support Rule, they must simply be finalized by the EPA, and a bipartisan push from Congress would go a long way toward achieving that.
Third, any effort to encourage the use of clean-burning, higher-octane fuels must include ethanol — the most cost-efficient and cleanest source of octane available. It offers the clearest path forward to meet the EPA’s broader greenhouse gas reduction targets for the country.
The administration has moved in the right direction by lifting a federal ban on summer sales of high-ethanol blends. But as new legislation continues to crop up, it is essential that sustainable high-ethanol blends remain part of the solution, whether that be in the form of new infrastructure for E-15, the proposed Green New Deal or a high-octane fuel standard.
Fourth, the government needs to commit to supporting the development of cleaner burning “second generation” cellulosic fuels and encourage companies such as Attis Innovations that are working to make existing ethanol production processes cleaner and more efficient. Investments to support and encourage research and development now will help pave the way to large-scale production of efficient advanced fuels made from a much-wider variety of biomass sources.
If the EPA is serious about fulfilling the Trump administration’s pledges to help rural America and the new Congress is serious about combating climate change, moving forward with these rules would set up our nation’s biofuel producers — and the country — for a very happy new year.
Jeff Cosman is chairman and CEO of Attis Industries Inc., including Attis Innovations, a division focused on developing the next generation of renewable fuels and bio-based products.
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