Ethics watchdog calls for investigation of EPA assault on renewable fuels

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a DC-based public-policy watchdog, has called for an investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent (and surprising) decision to gut renewable fuel standards.

The fuel standards, which detail the amount of climate-friendly biofuels (ethanol blends and biodiesel) refineries must produce each year, were established under a 2007 law supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Environmentalists were therefore surprised last November when the EPA proposed slashing the annual quotas for biofuels.

BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig fire

BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig fire, photo from DOE. More dramatic photos here.

Industry-observers had been scratching their heads for six months trying to figure out why the EPA had decided to undermine a bipartisan environmentally-friendly law that even George W. Bush liked.

Earlier speculation centered around the Keystone Pipeline. Some feared that the Obama administration had already privately decided to kill the Keystone project, and in an effort to placate a sure-to-be-incensed oil industry, proposed gutting biofuels as a consolation prize for Big Oil.  But the administration recently put the pipeline on hold indefinitely, and the EPA is still gunning for biofuels.

Now the oil industry is claiming that a component of the licensing of the fuels, called a Renewable Identification Number (RIN), has become too expensive, and that’s the reason the standards must be gutted.  Industry advocates say the RIN argument is a red herring, and that Big Oil simply doesn’t like the competition from more climate-friendly fuel alternatives like ethanol blends or biodiesel. And of course, the oil industry hated biofuels long before RINs became the latest flavor of the month.

Things got even more interesting last week when Reuters reported that the EPA decision on biofuels came after the notoriously-well-connected Carlyle Group and Delta Airlines weighed in with VP Biden, via intermediaries.  A little more on Carlyle from ABC:

Carlyle is a politically connected powerhouse whose board of advisors has been graced by the names of numerous political luminaries from both the Democratic and Republican Parties including former President Bush, his Secretary of State James Baker III, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, Britain’s former Prime Minister John Major, ex-Time magazine media glitterati Norman Pearlstein and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff, Mack McLarty. The firm is currently headed by the highly regarded ex-IBM CEO Lou Gerstner.

It’s the connection of Carlyle and Delta that finally drew CREW’s ire.

BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig fire

BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig fire

“The EPA, which has never previously reduced renewable fuel standards, seems to have done so now as a result of congressional and White House intervention,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said. “Given that the agency’s decision to lower renewable fuel standards is an unprecedented break from past practices, the public has a right to know whether this decision was based on policy or politics. The EPA inspector general should immediately investigate, ” she added.

The concern now, among climate advocates, is that the uncertainty over the biofuel standards, and the possible cut in the overall quotas, may end up gutting the nascent biofuel industry, effectively shutting it down before it’s even been given a chance to work out the kinks.

From the Seattle Times:

The announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) upset biodiesel producers, who had hoped for increased mandates by as much as 50 percent. It also forced Haas to trim hours for his 30 employees and cut production by 20 percent.

“It set the whole industry in disarray,” said Haas, chief executive of General Biodiesel. On Wednesday, Haas joined three other biodiesel executives and six Democratic U.S. senators, including Maria Cantwell, of Washington, to demand that the EPA boost the Renewable Fuel Standard requirement for biodiesel. The agency, in a reversal of previous year-over-year increases, wants to keep the 2013 biodiesel mandate of 1.28 billion gallons the same through 2015. A final ruling is expected this summer.

That proposal was part of a larger initial decision by the EPA in November to reduce the total amount of renewable fuel — including biodiesel — that must be incorporated into the nation’s transportation-fuel supply by 1.34 billion gallons, or 8 percent, for 2014.

The interest in biofuels arose as a result of oil’s role as one of the planet’s lead “climate criminals.”  And while corn-based ethanol is far from perfect, as Jeremy Martin explains over at National Geographic points out we simply have to move away from oil in the long (short?) term, and biofuels are the future.

Rather than use every setback to pronounce the industry dead, we ought to do what scientists do, use our experience of the past seven years to improve the product and finally make it a viable alternative to climate-destroying petroleum.

More from Martin:

Duck covered in oil.

Duck covered in oil.

As Peter Frumhoff’s blog last year makes clear, oil is the primary climate problem in the transportation sector. So just because we find that oil-saving solutions are not easy does not mean we can afford to stick with the status quo. Instead of writing (yet another) obituary for cellulosic biofuels, we should use this new research to improve and refine our quest for clean fuels….

The broader point is that when studies like these highlight challenges on the road to cutting oil use, we need to meet the challenges rather than turn back.

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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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