Role of Biofuels in CSA Could Be Overshadowed by Disputes over RFS
Given the importance of biofuels and their capacity to avoid carbon emissions in climate-smart agriculture (CSA), advocates remain concerned about the ongoing uncertainty of federal renewable fuels policy.
A subcabinet-level gathering late last month of officials representing USDA, EPA and DOE was the latest in numerous meetings held in recent months, including several at the White House with President Trump, to resolve a longstanding dispute over Renewable Fuel Identification numbers (RINs).
RINs are assigned to commercially-made biofuels. Refiners who have insufficient amounts to meet their blending mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) must purchase RINs from other refiners who have accumulated the credits after meeting their blending obligations.
EPA has granted more than two dozen blending waivers from RFS requirements to refiners who claim RIN prices are too steep and pose economic hardships. Critics say the agency under Administrator Scott Pruitt is granting the waivers at a rate far greater than in previous years and to refiners that don’t meet “hardship” eligibility – in effect, undermining the RFS and the ethanol market.
Ethanol and farm groups filed suit last week filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit to challenge the waivers to the RFS, narrowly targeting three that the petitioners say were “granted in secret to profitable refining companies.”
The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) and National Farmers Union (NFU), with support of Farmers Union Enterprises, say the decisions to grant waivers from RFS requirements to refineries in Wynnewood, OK; Cheyenne, WY; and Woods Cross, UT, were made “under unusually clandestine proceeding.”
The petitioners also note that company disclosures show the exemptions have saved the refiners a collective $170 million in compliance costs, despite healthy financial reports.
The groups say they are not challenging EPA’s underlying authority to exempt certain small refineries, but are instead contesting the three granted exemptions as abuses of the agency’s authority. They said EPA should be forced to explain why an otherwise profitable refinery faces disproportionate hardship from compliance with the RFS.
Another concern among CSA advocates stems from the status of sales of E15 (15-percent ethanol) during summer months in most of the country. One result of the White House meetings was Trump’s agreement to lift a ban on those summertime sales, given that EPA studies show the higher ethanol blend, in fact, do not pose the additional air quality problems originally cited for imposing the ban. Lifting the restriction would provide a major boost in the availability of ethanol and pressure RIN prices down. But no formal action has yet been taken to expand E15 sales and the partial ban went into effect Friday.
A proposal to ascribe RINs to ethanol exports to reduce their cost also concerns ethanol interests, who say the move would weaken the RFS and erode the ethanol market here in the United States.
Ironically, the tumult over the RIN issues has resulted in their price have falling since the end of 2017, now standing at a five-year low.
The dispute over the RFS is also muddling the promotion of even higher ethanol blends (E20-40) in transportation fuels – an effort that takes on additional significance with a decision pending from the Trump administration on whether to formally roll back auto fuel efficiency targets in the next decade.
DOE research shows ethanol-based, high octane fuels with optimized internal combustion engines can further reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Baker Bliss, president of the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance, points out in an essay published by Ethanol Producer Magazine last week that the transportation sector is the second-biggest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world, accounting for more than one-fifth of all emissions. Furthermore, he says progress in reducing the emissions is among the slowest of all sectors, likely attributable to the failure to meet the full potential offered by biofuel technologies, including the use of ethanol.
He cites International Energy Agency research showing that sustainable biofuels could provide 27 percent of the world’s total transport fuel by 2050 and avoid around 2.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, with biofuels eventually providing 20 percent of total emission savings in the transport sector.
“For the Paris Agreement to be realized, ” Bliss writes, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries need to decline by 2.1 percent annually up to 2025. And they’ll need to use ethanol.”
In an interview with DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton last month, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said the ethanol industry is in position to rise above the debate over the RFS and E15 and help boost its market with a focus on octane.
“The question is: How do we get to the next level?” said Daschle, a co-author of the RFS in 2005, while laying out biofuels’ historic progression from reformulated fuels in the 1990s to the current RFS to higher-compression engines and octane levels in the near future.
“That’s sort of the extraordinary progression of an industry that can be remarkably catalytic in addressing many of the challenges we face in transportation fuels for the next generation,” Daschle said. “I look at it on that grand of a scale. I think that octane can mean cleaner air, it can mean higher performance, it can mean far more lucrative ethanol markets. It can mean tremendous new growth for rural America.”
California Sees CSA Role in Reaching Ambitious GHG Targets
A concept paper released jointly last month by four California agencies lays out what state officials say is an ambitious plan to use forests, farmland, ranchland, grasslands, wetlands and urban land to mitigate climate change while enhancing their resilience to worsening climate change impacts.
Although natural and working lands can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in soil and vegetation, officials say, disturbances such as severe wildfire, land degradation and conversion can cause the landscapes to emit more carbon dioxide than they store.
Jointly developed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), California Air Resources Board (CARB), California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA), “The Natural and Working Lands Implementation Plan” will identify the scope and scale of activities that California can undertake to mitigate the disturbances and enhance the resilience of natural and working lands, increasing their ability to sequester carbon and provide health, social, economic, and environmental benefits.
The plan calls for incentives and technical assistance rather than new regulations to accelerate soil conservation practices such as cover crops, reduced tillage and no-till on farmlands. Other carbon sequestration practices cited by the concept paper includes boosting rangeland compost applications and “prescribed grazing” to better preserve vegetation and grasslands that are otherwise lost to grazing.
The concept paper also cites several forestland management practices aimed at bolstering carbon sequestration, including the clearing and removal of understory to support forest health and reduce risk of fire.
Late last year, the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCDANR) cited the growing role of agriculture in addressing climate change through a series of research articles appearing in the division’s quarterly research journal, California Agriculture. The articles foreshadowed the aims of the multi-agency concept paper, asserting that the agriculture sector offers opportunities for working lands to contribute to meeting state greenhouse gas targets.
California has committed to cutting GHG emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030. As a sector, agriculture is responsible for 8 percent of state emissions, officials say, with some two-thirds of that coming from livestock production through manure management and enteric fermentation. Another 20 percent of agriculture’s share of emissions is said to stem from fertilizer use and soil management associated with crop production; while 13 percent comes from fuel use associated with agricultural activities, including irrigation pumping and cooling or heating commodities.
California also plays an essential role in the nutritional quality of our national food system, accounting for, by value, roughly two-thirds of U.S. fruit and nut production, half of U.S. vegetable production and 20 percent of U.S. dairy production.
One of the articles appearing in the UCDANR publication last fall reviews recent research on practices that can reduce emissions, sequester carbon and provide other co-benefits to producers and the environment across agriculture and rangeland systems. The research reviewed was conducted in California and addresses practices in the state’s specific agricultural, socioeconomic and biophysical environment.
While farmland conversion and the dairy and intensive livestock sector are the largest contributors to the state’s GHG emissions, they also offer the greatest opportunities for avoided emissions, the article states. The authors identify soil and nutrient management, integrated and diversified farming systems, rangeland management, and biomass-based energy generation. They add that additional research to replicate and quantify the emissions reduction or carbon sequestration potential of these practices will strengthen the evidence base for California climate policy.
Another article cites research work being done at the UC Davis Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility (RRSAF) aimed at developing resilience to the threats posed by a changing climate through strategies that are necessary for climate-smart management of soil and water.
The RRSAF is investigating the effects of multiple farming practices in a farm-scale replicated study of 10 row-crop cropping systems. The study is looking at different fertility management systems: organic, conventional and hybrid (conventional plus winter cover crop) systems; different crops: wheat, tomatoes, corn, alfalfa, cover crops and grasslands; and different irrigation systems: rainfed, flood-irrigated and drip-irrigated. All represent an important focus for developing climate-smart strategies in food production systems like those in California.
The research cited by UCDANR demonstrates the role agriculture will play in the implementation plan proposed in the multi-agency concept paper. The plan will identify an ambitious but achievable 2030 GHG-reduction goal for natural and working lands and will provide a blueprint to achieve the goal by building capacity through state-funded conservation, restoration and management programs at CDFA, CalEPA and CNRA.
State officials say implementation will aim to achieve the state’s vision for the natural and working lands sector, which includes:
- Enhancing the resilience of and potential for carbon sequestration on lands through management and restoration.
- Innovating biomass utilization such that harvested wood and excess agricultural and forest biomass can be used to advance statewide objectives for renewable energy and fuels, wood product manufacturing, agricultural markets, and soil health, increasing the resilience of rural communities and economies and avoiding GHG emissions relative to traditional utilization pathways through these activities.
‘Roadmap’ IDs Georgia’s Top 40 Climate Research Questions
A multi-disciplinary team of experts from across Georgia has developed the “Georgia Climate Research Roadmap,” a first-of-its-kind list of 40 key research questions that can help policymakers and practitioners better understand and address climate change in Georgia.
The roadmap, published May 23 in the journal Environmental Management, is an initiative of the Georgia Climate Project, a state-wide consortium founded by Emory University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Georgia to improve understanding of climate impacts and solutions in Georgia.
The roadmap’s 40 questions focus on how climate change will impact Georgia and options for dealing with those impacts across themes such as water, the coast, agriculture, health, and energy. Several questions address issues related to equity and at-risk communities. The roadmap is a non-partisan initiative.
An interactive version can be accessed HERE.
Questions pertinent to agriculture and forestry include:
- What are the economic costs and benefits of climate change for agricultural and natural resources?
- How will climate change impact food security in Georgia?
- How can the environment help Georgia adapt to climate change?
- What policies and practices could Georgia use to increase carbon sequestration in agriculture and forestry?
- What sources and forms of information and communication can be used to build resilience among farmers and farming communities faced with changing weather patterns and extreme events?
“By bringing these questions together in one place, we are trying to make it easier to identify high-impact research opportunities that will benefit decision-makers,” said Emory University’s Daniel Rochberg, a co-author of the paper. “The group that came together to produce the Roadmap is a great indicator of the expertise we have across the state on these issues.”
To develop the roadmap, a team of 41 co-authors from academia, government, non-governmental organizations and industry worked through a list of 180 candidate questions submitted by experts across the state through an online solicitation process.
“To our knowledge, we are the first to use this novel research prioritization methodology on such a complex cross-cutting issue at the state level,” said co-author Marilyn Brown of the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“We see this as a really important first step,” said co-author Patricia Yager of the University of Georgia. “Now that we have outlined these questions, we hope to see researchers across the state digging into these in much more detail.”
“This type of information is going to be really important for policymakers” said co-author David D’Onofrio of the Atlanta Regional Commission. “On our side, we’re already making plans to do more work on one of the big infrastructure questions by identifying vulnerabilities in our transportation system to climate change and extreme weather.”
The roadmap will also serve as the basis for a climate information portal that can provide easy access to information on climate impacts and solutions in Georgia. Jennifer Kline, a co-author from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said “a tool like this roadmap can really broaden our engagement on these questions around the state.”
Renewables Continue Strong Growth, But CO2 Emissions Also Rise
Renewable power accounted for 70 percent of net additions to global power generating capacity in 2017, the largest increase in renewable power capacity in modern history, according to REN21’s Renewables 2018 Global Status Report (GSR). But the heating, cooling and transport sectors, which together account for about four-fifths of global final energy demand, continue to lag far behind the power sector.
Also, both energy demand and energy-related CO2 emissions rose substantially for the first time in four years. Energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 1.4 percent. Global energy demand increased an estimated 2.1 percent in 2017 due to economic growth in emerging economies as well as population growth.
The GSR is the most comprehensive annual overview of the state of renewable energy worldwide.
New solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity reached record levels: Solar PV additions were up 29 percent relative to 2016, to 98 gigawatts (GW). More solar PV generating capacity was added to the electricity system than net capacity additions of coal, natural gas and nuclear power combined. Wind power also drove the uptake of renewables with 52 GW added globally.
Investment in new renewable power capacity was more than twice that of net, new fossil fuel and nuclear power capacity combined, despite large, ongoing subsidies for fossil fuel generation. More than two-thirds of investments in power generation were in renewables in 2017, thanks to their increasing cost-competitiveness – and the share of renewables in the power sector is expected to only continue to rise.
Investment in renewables was regionally concentrated: China, Europe and the United States accounted for nearly 75 percent of global investment in renewables in 2017. However, when measured per unit of gross domestic product (GDP), the Marshall Islands, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, Guinea- Bissau, and many other developing countries are investing as much as or more in renewables than developed and emerging economies.
But the renewable energy uptake is not keeping pace with the increasing energy demand and the continuous investment in fossil and nuclear capacity.
In the power sector, the transition to renewables is under, way but is progressing more slowly than is possible or desirable. A commitment made under the 2015 Paris climate agreement to limit global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels makes the nature of the challenge much clearer.
If the world is to achieve the target set in the Paris agreement, then heating, cooling and transport will need to follow the same path as the power sector – and fast. These sectors have seen:
Little change in renewables uptake in heating and cooling: Modern renewable energy supplied approximately 10 percent of total global heat production in 2015. National targets for renewable energy in heating and cooling exist in only 48 countries around the world, whereas 146 countries have targets for renewable energy in the power sector.
Small changes are under way. In India, for example, installations of solar thermal collectors rose approximately 25 percent in 2017 as compared to 2016. China aims to have 2 percent of the cooling loads of its buildings come from solar thermal energy by 2020.
In transport, increasing electrification is offering possibilities for renewable energy uptake despite the dominance of fossil fuels: More than 30 million two- and three-wheeled electric vehicles are being added to the world’s roads every year, and 1.2 million passenger electric cars were sold in 2017, up about 58 percent from 2016. Electricity provides 1.3 percent of transport energy needs, of which about one-quarter is renewable, and biofuels provide 2.9 percent. Overall, however, 92 percent of transport energy demand continues to be met by oil, and only 42 countries have national targets for the use of renewable energy in transport.
For these sectors to change, the right policy frameworks need to be put in place, driving innovation and the development of new renewable energy technologies in the sectors that are lagging.
“Equating ‘electricity’ with ‘energy’ is leading to complacency,” said Rana Adib, executive secretary of REN21. “We may be racing down the pathway towards a 100 percent renewable electricity future, but when it comes to heating, cooling and transport, we are coasting along as if we had all the time in the world. Sadly, we don’t.”
Arthouros Zervos, REN21 chair, added: “To make the energy transition happen there needs to be political leadership by governments – for example by ending subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear, investing in the necessary infrastructure, and establishing hard targets and policy for heating, cooling and transport. Without this leadership, it will be difficult for the world to meet climate or sustainable development commitments.”