Category Archives: Biofuels

Study Finds Biofuels Worse for Climate than Gasoline

[Editor:  I was wrong.  In a recent post, I applauded Valero Energy for planning a new “renewable diesel” refinery in Texas, and I wondered if Valero Benicia might someday convert to production of renewable fuels.  Here’s why “renewable” doesn’t necessarily mean “clean.”  – R.S.]

Climate Central, by John Upton, August 25th, 2016

Corn is the main crop used in the U.S. to produce biofuel. Credit: Jim Deane/Flickr

Years of number crunching that had seemed to corroborate the climate benefits of American biofuels were starkly challenged in a science journal on Thursday, with a team of scientists using a new approach to conclude that the climate would be better off without them.

Based largely on comparisons of tailpipe pollution and crop growth linked to biofuels, University of Michigan Energy Institute scientists estimated that powering an American vehicle with ethanol made from corn would have caused more carbon pollution than using gasoline during the eight years studied.

Most gasoline sold in the U.S. contains some ethanol, and the findings, published in Climatic Change, were controversial. They rejected years of work by other scientists who have relied on a more traditional approach to judging climate impacts from bioenergy — an approach called life-cycle analysis.

Following the hottest month on record globally, and with temperatures nearly 2°F warmer and tides more than half a foot higher than they were in the 1800s, the implications of biofuels causing more harm to the climate than good would be sweeping.

The research was financially supported by the American Petroleum Institute, which represents fossil fuel industry companies and has sued the federal government over its biofuel rules.

“I’m bluntly telling the life-cycle analysis community, ‘Your method is inappropriate,’” said professor John DeCicco, who led the work. “I evaluated to what extent have we increased the rate at which the carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere?”

Lifecycle analyses assume that all carbon pollution from biofuels is eventually absorbed by growing crops. DeCicco’s analysis found that energy crops were responsible for additional plant growth that absorbed just 37 percent of biofuel pollution from 2005 to 2013, leaving most of it in the atmosphere, where it traps heat.

“The question, ‘How does the overall greenhouse gas emission impact of corn ethanol compare to that of gasoline?’ does not have a scientific answer,” DeCicco said. “What I can say definitively is that, whatever the magnitude of the emissions impact is, it is unambiguously worse than petroleum gasoline.”

The findings were criticized by scientists whose work is directly challenged by them.

Argonne National Laboratory scientist Michael Wang, who has led lifecycle analyses that found climate benefits from different biofuels, called the research “highly questionable” for a range of technical reasons, including its focus on growth by American crops instead of the global network of farms.

Driven by federal and Californian policies that promote biofuels to slow global warming, the use of ethanol, biodiesel and similar products more than trebled nationwide during the years studied, providing 6 percent of Americans’ fuel by 2013. Federal data shows gasoline sold in the U.S. last year contained about 10 percent corn ethanol.

Thursday’s paper provided fresh fuel for a heated debate among opposing groups of scientists over bioenergy’s climate impacts. Some are certain it’s a helper in the fight against climate change. Others are convinced it’s a threat.

“In the long run, there’s no question that biofuels displacing petroleum is a benefit,” said Daniel Schrag, a geology professor at Harvard who advises the EPA on bioenergy climate impacts. His views sharply oppose those of DeCicco. “It’s just a question of how long you have to wait.”

Eight years of pollution from biofuels compared with extra carbon absorption by energy crops. Michigan scientists found 37 percent of the pollution remained in the atmosphere — 83 teragrams. Credit: DeCicco et al., Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use, Climatic Change, 2016

Schrag dismissed Thursday’s findings, saying there’s no reason to develop a new approach to measuring biofuels’ impacts. He said the proposed new approach fails because it doesn’t account for the years it can take for bioenergy to benefit the climate.

Analyses by scientists who have studied the life-cycle impacts of growing corn and other crops to produce ethanol have generally concluded biofuels can create between 10 percent to 50 percent less carbon dioxide pollution than gasoline.

Those estimates have been based on the notion that although bioenergy releases an initial blast of carbon dioxide pollution, the benefits of it accrue over time, as crops, trees and grass grow and suck that carbon dioxide back into their roots, flowers and leaves.

Such benefits are more conceptual than scientific, turning scientific debates at the EPA and elsewhere over how to calculate them into seemingly intractable policy quagmires.

“What timescale should we look at?,” Schrag said. “Some of the fundamental questions about timescale are not scientific questions. They are societal questions.”

The University of Michigan scientists dispensed with the timescale-based approach altogether, eliminating the need for policy decisions about which timeframes should be used. Instead, their research provided an overview of eight years of overall climate impacts of America’s multibillion-dollar biofuel sector.

The findings from the new approach were welcomed by Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton researcher who has been a vocal critic of bioenergy. He has been speaking out for years about the shortcomings of traditional approaches used to measure its climate impacts.

Searchinger said the approach developed in Michigan provides an “additional calculation” to help overcome the flawed assumption that climate pollution released when bioenergy burns does not matter.

Although European officials have warned of the limitations of the use of lifecycle analyses in assessing the climate impacts of bioenergy, the EPA has been steadfast for more than five years in its attempts to create a new regulatory framework that would continue to embrace the approach.

“The U.S. is not coming close to offsetting the carbon released by burning biofuels through additional crop growth,” Searchinger said.


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    Valero, other refiners spend more on U.S. clean fuel standards, look for savings through exports

    Repost from Reuters
    [Editor: Significant quote: “The price of credits has fuel makers like PBF Energy Inc and Valero looking to increase exports, which are not subject to the regulations, as a way to escape the costs.”  (emph. added) – RS]

    Refiners on track to spend record on U.S. clean fuel standards

    By Jarrett Renshaw, Aug 10, 2016 4:26pm EDT

    Major refiners like Valero Energy Corp are on track to pay record amounts this year for credits to comply with U.S. renewable fuel rules, corporate filings show, a trend that hurts profits and has some looking to export more to avoid the cost.

    Refiners and fuel importers are required to meet a U.S. biofuel quota of roughly 10 percent through blending products like ethanol into gasoline and diesel. If they fall short, they can buy credits generated by companies in compliance. But the cost of the credits, known as Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), has jumped.

    The rising costs have hurt a sector already struggling with huge global fuel stockpiles. The S&P 1500 index of refining and marketing companies has fallen 18 percent so far in 2016, compared with a 6.5 percent gain for the broader market.

    In the first half of 2016, a collection of 10 refinery owners including Marathon Petroleum Corp, spent at least $1.1 billion buying RINs, a Reuters review of their filings showed. This puts them on track to surpass the annual record of $1.3 billion the same group spent in 2013.

    Refinery executives sharply criticized the regulations during recent earnings calls, saying the burden helped bring about the weakest profits in five years.

    “RINs continue to be an egregious tax on our business and have become our single largest operating expense, exceeding labor, maintenance and energy costs,” CVR Refining Chief Executive Jack Lipinski said last month.

    Marathon Chief Executive Gary Heminger said on a call last month that demand for RINs are going to outpace supply and the company wanted to see renewable fuel standards eased.

    Refiners without blending or retail outlets, such as Delta Air Lines and CVR, have to buy a greater percentage of RINs because they don’t create their own. Delta is part of a refiner group challenging fuel standards through the courts.

    Supporters of the existing policy, including the influential corn lobby, said the regulations have produced the desired effect: more renewable fuels in the nation’s gasoline and diesel. They noted refiners can avoid the cost of RINs by investing in blending operations.

    “Companies that refuse to blend more renewable fuel will end up paying a premium to other market participants, including speculators, but this is a choice,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, which represents ethanol producers.

    ESCAPE THROUGH EXPORTS

    Renewable fuel credits averaged about 78 cents apiece in the second quarter, about 25 percent above the same period a year ago, according to Oil Price Information Service data analyzed by Reuters.

    Prices for the credits have rallied on more ambitious targets from U.S. regulators on the volumes of ethanol required to be blended with gasoline, traders and industry sources said.

    The price of credits has fuel makers like PBF Energy Inc and Valero looking to increase exports, which are not subject to the regulations, as a way to escape the costs.

    PBF Chief Executive Thomas Nimbley said on an earnings call last month that it was “very important” that they expand their refined product export operations, citing RINs as a driver.

    Refiners are also lobbying to shift the responsibility of compliance from their industry to blenders and distributors who mix gasoline with ethanol for delivery to filling stations.

    (Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson)
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      Sacramento: Oil firms challenge state over clean fuel

      Repost from SFGate

      Clean fuels shaping up as fight of the year in Sacramento

      New battle lines drawn in fight over low-carbon policy
      By Laurel Rosenhall, CALmatters, Mar 5, 2016 Updated: 3/6/16 3:33pm
      A pending fight over low-carbon fuel standards could hinge on how they affect the state’s cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP
      A pending fight over low-carbon fuel standards could hinge on how they affect the state’s cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP

      A Harvard economist known globally for his work on climate change policy sat in the Sacramento office of the oil industry’s lobbying firm recently, making the case that California is fighting global warming the wrong way.

      The state has a good cap and trade system, Robert Stavins said, but some of its other environmental policies are weakening it. He pointed to a rule known as the low carbon fuel standard, which is supposed to increase production of clean fuels.

      Environmental advocates consider it a complement to the cap and trade program that makes industry pay for emitting carbon; Stavins had other words.

      “It’s contradictory. It’s counter-productive. It’s perverse,” he said. “I would recommend eliminating it.”

      California’s low carbon fuel policy is shaping up as a major fight this year for the state’s oil industry, an influential behemoth that spent more than $10.9 million lobbying Sacramento last year, more than any other interest group.

      “There’s a storm coming,” biofuels lobbyist Chris Hessler told a roomful of clean energy advocates at a recent conference on low carbon fuels. “If we don’t meet this attack vigorously, we’re all going to be in a lot of trouble.”

      NEW BATTLE LINES

      The oil industry was front and center in the biggest fight to hit the state Capitol last year: a proposal to cut California’s petroleum consumption in half over the next 15 years to slow the pace of climate change. The industry won its battle when lawmakers stripped the oil provision from Senate Bill 350.

      But California’s larger oil war is far from over, and the newest battle lines are beginning to emerge.

      Gov. Jerry Brown is plowing ahead with plans to cut vehicle oil use in half through executive orders and regulations like the low carbon fuel standard. The standard requires producers to cut the carbon intensity of their fuels 10 percent by 2020. To reach the standard, refineries will have to make a blend that uses more alternative fuels — like ethanol — and less oil.

      The program was adopted in 2009 but was locked in a court battle for years. California regulators prevailed, and took action last year to resume the program. Now producers must start changing the way they formulate their fuel or buy credits if their product is over the limit.

      That’s led to higher costs for fuel makers, which they are passing on to consumers at a rate of about 4 cents per gallon, according to the California Energy Commission. But the price is likely to keep increasing, the oil industry warns, as it gets tougher to meet the standard that increases over time.

      Which is where Stavins’ argument comes in. It goes like this: the cleaner fuels required by the low carbon fuel standard will emit less greenhouse gas. That will reduce the need for fuel producers to buy permits in the cap and trade system (which makes industry pay for emitting climate-warming pollution) and create additional emissions by allowing other manufacturers to buy the pollution permits.

      Less demand will also depress prices on the cap and trade market.

      Stavins is the director of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program and part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a prestigious group of experts who review research for the United Nations.

      He’s also an advisor to the Western States Petroleum Association, which paid him to make the trip to Sacramento, where he talked with reporters before a day of meetings with lawmakers and business leaders.

      Environmental advocates and California clean air regulators reject his view. They say the fuel standard works in harmony with other carbon-reducing programs and it’s an important piece of California’s effort to achieve its climate change goals.

      “One of the major goals of the low carbon fuel standard… is to drive innovation of new and alternative low carbon fuels,” said Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. “The cap and trade program on its own cannot do that.”

      Alternative fuel producers gathered in a ballroom near the Capitol days after Stavins’ visit to Sacramento. During a presentation on the rising price of low carbon fuel credits, Hessler, the biofuels lobbyist, warned that the program is coming under “political attack.”

      He defended the fuel standard by saying the regulation limits the price of the credits, and the cost to consumers will be kept down as some fuel producers make money by selling credits to others. He urged conference participants to share his information with California policymakers to counter opposition to the low carbon fuel standard.

      “We’ve got to be ready for this,” Hessler said.

      HOW THINGS COULD GO DOWN

      A fight last year over a low carbon fuel standard in the state of Washington may provide some clues about how things could go down here.

      There, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a low carbon fuel standard but failed to earn enough support for it in the Legislature. The fuel standard became a bargaining chip for Republicans in negotiations about funding for transportation infrastructure.

      Here in California, lawmakers and Gov. Brown are also negotiating a plan to pay for a backlog of repairs to state roads and highways. Brown has pitched spending $36 billion over the next decade with a mix of taxes and other revenue sources.

      Republican votes are necessary to reach the two-thirds threshold for approving new taxes. So far, Republicans have balked at the plan, with some suggesting that the fuel standard should be included in the negotiations.

      “As we’re having the discussions about transportation funding in general in California, and transportation taxes in particular, this ought to be part of the discussion,” said Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia.

      It’s a message echoed by the president of the Western States Petroleum Association, which advocated against the low carbon fuel standard in Washington.

      Catherine Reheis-Boyd said she wants California lawmakers to “take a very hard look” at the low carbon fuel standard as they consider the future of climate change policies and the desire to repair the state’s roads.

      “All those things interplay,” Reheis-Boyd said. “That’s a big conversation. I think people across the state are willing to have it, and I think we’re at a pivotal point to have it this year.”

      CALmatters is a nonprofit journalism venture dedicated to explaining state policies and politics. For more news analysis by Laurel Rosenhall go to https://calmatters.org/newsanalysis/.
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        SF Chronicle Editorial: California should stick with clean-fuel rule

        Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

        Editorial: California should stick with clean-fuel rule

        San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 2015

        Though state lawmakers caved to the oil industry by spiking a plan to sharply reduce gasoline use, there’s another option for Sacramento in reducing climate change and promoting alternative sources to fill gas tanks. State regulators are close to extending a measure that cuts carbon levels in everyday driving fuel.

        The low-carbon standard is among a batch of policies designed to cut carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse-gas culprit blamed for rising temperatures and whipsawing weather. Extending the mandate to cut levels in gas is an essential part of state strategies to curb climate change.

        Reducing the carbon level in gas has other benefits. It spurs development of alternative biofuels to wean California off its petroleum diet. The skies will be clearer and public health improved. It nudges the state toward more low-emission vehicles by showcasing the innovation needed to change gas-burning habits.

        It’s not without controversy. Oil producers and Midwest ethanol producers say the plan is too flawed and complicated to work, an argument that failed in court last year. But this week, a string of major businesses — eBay, KB Home and Dignity Health among them — is backing the fuel rule. “It’s a practical, gradual and manageable transition,” said Anne Kelly, director of the employer coalition known as Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy.

        Later this week the state Air Resources Board will consider extending the low-carbon standard, first promulgated in 2007. It’s almost certain to renew the policy, which aims to lower carbon levels by 10 percent by 2020.

        The larger picture should be unmistakable. California is pushing ahead on major climate-change measures that Washington is too timid to undertake. The state is increasing renewable energy to light homes and businesses. Rules to encourage thriftier ways of heating and cooling will be strengthened. The worries about lost jobs and shuttered businesses aren’t proving true as the state’s economy gathers steam.

        Changing the ingredients in gas-pump fuels should be part of this overall trend. Renewing the low-carbon standard will be good for California’s future.

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