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Study Deals Blow for Biofuels as EPA Lowers 2013 Mandate

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday retroactively lowered the quantity of cellulosic biofuel required for blending in traditional fuels for 2013. In January the EPA agreed to reconsider the mandate “due to the reduced estimate of anticipated cellulosic biofuel production in 2013 that was announced shortly after EPA signed its final rule by one of two companies expected to produce cellulosic biofuel in 2013.”

The new blend level0.0005—more closely aligns with the amount of cellulosic biofuel produced. The EPA based its 2013 standard on the 810,185 ethanol-equivalent gallons produced with nonfood plants last year—a fraction of the 1 billion gallons that Congress sought to require in a 2007 energy law.

new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that cellulosic biofuels may actually create more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gasoline, at least in the short term. It finds that in the early years biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn release 7 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. The study notes that removing corn harvest residue—stalks, leaves and cobs—takes carbon out of the soil.

The researchers used a predictive model based on 36 field studies on four continents that measured the rate at which carbon is oxidized in soil. They also tested the model’s accuracy by comparing its results with data gathered from a nine-year, continuous cornfield experiment in Nebraska.

The biofuels industry, the EPA and other researchers have criticized the study—calling the analysis “simplistic” and pointing to a lack of accounting for varying soil and other conditions in different fields as well as an overestimate of how much residue farmers actually remove.

“This paper is based on a hypothetical assumption that 100 percent of corn stover in a field is harvested; an extremely unlikely scenario that is inconsistent with recommended agricultural practices,” said EPA spokewoman Liz Purchia. “As such, it does not provide useful information relevant to the lifecycle GHG emissions from corn stover ethanol.”

The EPA’s own analysis—assuming about half of corn residue would be removed from fields—found that fuel made from corn residue would meet the 2007 energy law standard requiring cellulosic biofuels to release 60 percent less carbon pollution than gasoline. Although biofuels are better in the long term, the Nature Climate Change study says they won’t meet that standard.

Delays for Keystone XL, Power Plant Rule Still on Track

The EPA insists its proposed rules for regulating carbon emissions from existing power plants will be ready by the Obama administration’s June 1 deadline. Although Deputy EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe reportedly said the rule would come out in “late June, maybe even the end of June,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said Perciasepe “misspoke when talking about 111(d).” She added that “EPA is on track to meet the June 1 goal that’s part of the President’s Climate Action Plan.”

The EPA has already sent a draft of the rule to the Office of Management and Budget for review. Few details of its contents have been released.

A decision on another hot environmental topic was delayed. The Obama administration said late last week it would give federal agencies more time to assess the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is expected to transport crude tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The announcement, The Washington Post reports, almost certainly pushes a final decision on construction of the pipeline past the November mid-term elections.

“Agencies need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the ongoing litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court which could ultimately affect the pipeline route in that state,” the State Department said. “In addition, during this time, we will review and appropriately consider the unprecedented number of new public comments, approximately 2.5 million, received during the public comment period that closed on March 7, 2014.”

Further details on the length of the delay were not provided by the State Department, but some legal experts have said the fight over the Nebraska route could drag out for a year or more. Because the pipeline extension crosses an international border, it requires signoff from the White House. President Barack Obama has said he won’t make a decision until after the State Department completes its assessment.

Arctic Drilling Rule Coming Shortly

Federal regulations that cover oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean are set to be released soon, according to Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Brian Salerno.

“The forthcoming rule will put important safeguards in place for future Arctic drilling operations,” said Salerno. “We hope to release the proposed rule shortly and open it for public comment, continuing an important dialogue on drilling operations in the Arctic that has already included numerous consultations and public meetings.”

The Arctic theoretically holds 30 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas resources. A new report by the National Research Council says that unlike Russia, which just shipped its first load of Arctic offshore oil, the United States is not ready for oil drilling in the region. It suggests that safety resources and oil response tools are not yet adequate.

“The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill,” report authors said(subscription). “It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies and personnel.”

Because little is known about how crude oil degrades in Arctic waters and what it does to the food chain, the NRC report authors recommend that authorities release oil into Arctic waters for real-world testing of burning and dispersants.

“To really understand and be best prepared, we’re going to have to do some controlled releases,” said Mark Myers, research vice chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Obviously that’s an important decision to make and we recommend a process for doing that.”

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.