Trump Administration Backs Away from Appealing Ruling on RFA Waivers
The Trump administration this week let pass a deadline to ask for a re-hearing of a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that struck down certain small refinery exemptions (SREs) under the Renewable Fuel Standard.
A panel of Tenth Circuit judges unanimously ruled Jan. 24 that the EPA “exceeded its statutory authority” and “abused its discretion” in granting exemptions from 2016 and 2017 RFS requirements to three small refineries.
Two of the three refineries filed motions Tuesday seeking an appeal, but observers say that without the administration’s backing, a full-court hearing is very unlikely.
While the ruling only impacted about a third of the nation’s small refineries, it is expected to have a universal impact on EPA’s handling of SREs.
The challenge was brought against the EPA in May 2018 by the Renewable Fuels Association, National Corn Growers Association, American Coalition for Ethanol and National Farmers Union. The suit was filed in response to what the biofuels sector described as massive demand destruction caused by the EPA’s “illegal and indiscriminate use of SREs.”
In the wake of the administration’s decision not to seek a re-hearing of the decision, the four groups called upon the EPA to immediately apply the court decision nationwide. The renewable fuels coalition released the following statement:
“We are pleased the Trump administration has decided not to side with oil refiners in seeking a re-hearing of this unambiguous and well-reasoned court decision in the Tenth Circuit. We trust this also means the administration does not plan to petition the Supreme Court for an appeal.
“Abiding by the court’s ruling is the right thing to do at a time when our industries and rural America are already suffering from the effects of COVID-19, the Saudi-Russia oil price war and ongoing trade disputes,” the biofuels coalition continued. “We look to the RFS as a source of demand stability and certainty, especially in these troubling times. Requesting a re-hearing would have only prolonged uncertainty in the marketplace and exacerbated the pain and frustration already being experienced in the Heartland.
“With this key milestone now behind us, we look forward to EPA applying the Tenth Circuit decision nationwide to all SRE petitions, beginning with the 25 pending petitions for 2019 exemptions,” the coalition’s statement concluded.
In addition, the coalition noted that fully restoring the integrity of the RFS means also taking immediate action to restore 500 million gallons of inappropriately waived 2016 blending requirements, as ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. District in 2017 (Americans for Clean Energy v. EPA).
“This is EPA’s opportunity to turn the page and start a new chapter – one in which the agency faithfully follows the law and implements the RFS in a manner consistent with Congressional intent,” the coalition stated.
The Trump administration says it will still consider putting a cap on the price of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), credits refineries falling short of their obligation can buy from those operations that have exceeded their required blending amounts. The three refineries involved in the lawsuit say it is the high cost of RINs that is imposing the greatest economic hardship on their operations.
Biofuel proponents oppose a cap on RINs, which they say is another way to artificially dampen production.
For the 2016-2018 RFS compliance years, EPA issued 85 SREs, which the biofuel industry said has eroded more than 4 billion gallons of renewable fuel blending requirements. In addition to the Tenth Circuit decision, the coalition says it will continue to consider other actions that can recapture the lost demand.
EIA Projects U.S. Biofuel Production to Slowly Increase Through 2050
The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2020 (AEO2020) projects that U.S. biofuel production will slowly grow through 2050, primarily driven by economic and policy factors.
In the outlook’s “reference” case, which reflects current laws and regulations, biofuels production in 2050 is 18 percent higher than 2019 levels. However, in a side case with higher global crude oil prices, biofuels such as fuel ethanol and biodiesel are increasingly consumed as substitutes for petroleum products, resulting in 55 percent growth in biofuels production in 2050.
In 2019, U.S. biofuels consumption totaled 1.09 million barrels per day and accounted for 7.3 percent of total motor gasoline, distillate and jet fuel consumption. Fuel ethanol is the largest component of U.S. biofuels. In the AEO2020 reference case, ethanol production slowly decreases between 2019 and 2030, and then it increases toward the end of the projection period, largely mirroring the reference case projection for motor gasoline consumption.
The projected decline in domestic ethanol-blended gasoline consumption is offset by increasing U.S. ethanol exports. From 2019 to the end of the projection period, domestic production of biodiesel and other biofuels increases by 30,000 barrels/day (b/d) and 80,000 b/d, respectively. Although not included in the AEO2020 projections, the biodiesel blender’s tax credit, renewed in December 2019, is expected to increase domestic production and net imports of biomass-based diesel.
Biofuels consumption growth is supported by a projected decline in consumption of liquid fuels by the U.S. transportation sector, rising oil prices, and regulations such as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). In the AEO2020 Reference case, biofuels represent a relatively small but growing share of the domestic gasoline, distillate, and jet fuel market. The percentage of biofuels blended into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel is expected to increase from 7.3 percent in 2019 to a high of 9.0 percent in 2040 before slightly declining through 2050.
The AEO2020 High Oil Price case assumes greater levels of foreign demand for U.S.-produced biofuels than in the Reference case. Higher prices for transportation fuels make biofuels more price competitive with petroleum-based fuels. EIA projects both U.S. biofuels consumption and the share of biofuels consumption to rise at a substantially higher rate than in the Reference case. In this scenario, domestic biofuels consumption increases to 1.62 million b/d, or a 13.5-percent-biofuels share, in 2050.
In the AEO2020 Low Oil Price case, domestic biofuel consumption remains similar to the Reference case. EIA projects low oil prices contribute to a decrease in domestic consumption of biomass-based diesel (biodiesel and renewable diesel). Total biofuel consumption increases slightly as low gasoline prices result in greater amounts of domestically produced fuel ethanol to be blended into motor gasoline. Demand for biofuels is supported by regulations such as the RFS and California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard when prices of petroleum products are low and biofuels are less economically competitive.
Diversified Farms Protect Wildlife, Buffer Against Climate Change
Farming can guard against climate change and protect critical wildlife, but only through diversified operations, says a new Stanford study.
Coffee is one of the best crops for growing in a diversified landscape because it is sensitive in the heat and can use the shade of taller plants. Here, the single-crop system directly exposes the coffee to the powerful sun.
(Image credit: Nick Hendershot)
The research provides a rare, long-term look at how farming practices affect bird biodiversity in Costa Rica. “Farms that are good for birds are also good for other species,” said Jeffrey Smith, a graduate student in the department of biology and a co-author on the paper. “We can use birds as natural guides to help us design better agricultural systems.”
By and large, the team found that diversified farms are more stable in the number of birds they support, provide a more secure habitat for those birds and shield against the impacts of climate change much more effectively than single-crop farms.
“The tropics are expected to suffer even more intensely in terms of prolonged dry seasons, extreme heat and forest dieback under climate change,” said Gretchen Daily, director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project and the Center for Conservation Biology and a senior author on the paper. “But diversified farms offer refuge – they can buffer these harmful effects in ways similar to a natural forest ecosystem.”
The findings, published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, highlight the importance of farms that grow multiple crops in a mixed setting instead of the more common practice of planting single-crop “monocultures.”
“This study shows that climate change has already been impacting wildlife communities, continues to do so, and that local farming practices really matter in protecting biodiversity and building climate resilience,” said Nick Hendershot, a graduate student in the department of biology and lead author on the study.
Tropical regions are some of the most species-rich in the world, but they also face the greatest threats to biodiversity. As their forests are felled to plant cash crops like bananas and sugarcane, the amount and availability of natural habitats have shrunk dramatically. Meanwhile, climate change has resulted in longer, hotter dry seasons that make species survival even more challenging.
“It’s the one-two punch of land-use intensification and climate change,” Hendershot said. “Wildlife populations are already severely stressed, with overall decreased health and population sizes in some farming landscapes. Then, these further extreme conditions like prolonged drought can come along and really just decimate a species.”
Until now, little had been known about how agricultural practices impact biodiversity in the long term. This study’s researchers used nearly 20 years of meticulously collected field data to understand which birds live in natural tropical forests and in different types of farmland.
“It is only because we had these unusually extensive long-term data that we were able to detect the role of diversified farmlands in helping threatened species persist over multiple decades,” said Tadashi Fukami, an associate professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a senior author on the paper, along with Daily.
The varied agricultural systems at work in Costa Rica provided the research team with an ideal laboratory for studying bird communities in intensively farmed monoculture systems, diversified multi-crop farms, and natural forests. They compared monoculture farms – like pineapple, rice, or sugar cane – to diversified farms that interweave multiple crops and are often bordered by ribbons of natural forest.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that diversified farmlands not only provide refuge to more common bird species, they also protect some of the most threatened. Species of international conservation concern, like the Great Green Macaw and the Yellow-Naped Parrot, are at risk in Costa Rica due to habitat loss and the illegal pet trade.
In intensive monocrop farmlands, these species are declining. But in the diversified systems the researchers studied, the endangered birds can be found year after year.
“Which species are in a given place makes a huge difference – it’s not just about numbers alone, we care about who’s there,” Daily said. “Each bird serves a unique role as part of the machinery of nature. And the habitats they live in support us all.”
In Costa Rica and around the world, the researchers see opportunities to develop integrated, diversified agricultural systems that promote not only crop productivity and livelihood security, but also biodiversity. A paradigm shift towards global agricultural systems could help human and wildlife communities adapt to a changing climate, Daily said.
“There are so many cash crops that thrive in diversified farms. Bananas and coffee are two great examples from Costa Rica – they’re planted together, and the taller banana plant shades the temperature-sensitive coffee bean,” she added. “The two crops together provide more habitat opportunity than just one alone, and they also provide a diversified income stream for the farmer.”
From Climate Change Awareness to Action
Awareness of climate change and its impacts is not enough to move people to action. New research on how people’s worldviews affect their perceptions and actions could help policymakers and activists reframe the discussion around climate change mitigation.
Despite a very high level of awareness of climate change and its impacts, people are often hesitant to take action to change their behavior, according to a new study published in the journal Energy and Environment.
In 2015, nations agreed to limit climate change to “well below 2°C” to avoid the worst impacts. However, in order to achieve this climate change mitigation goal, current national targets must be significantly strengthened. This requires support from the public for policy changes, which includes not only acceptance of an energy transition, but also willingness to use and to pay for renewable energy sources as well as to actively engage in an energy transition. It also requires individual behavior changes in personal consumption of energy, food, and transportation.
“The major aim of this paper was to understand how awareness about the need for climate change mitigation could be turned into action,” says lead researcher Nadejda Komendantova, who is with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).
To understand how people’s worldviews affect their actions, Komendantova and Sonata Neumueller used social science methodology including surveys and interviews of people in three regions of Austria, ranging from rural to semi-rural and suburban.
As a country with a high level of awareness of climate change impacts both nationally and globally, the researchers expected to find broad support for climate change mitigation efforts, and they did. But despite a high, almost universal, level of awareness about the need for climate change mitigation, there was a great heterogeneity in opinions about whose responsibility it is to implement climate change mitigation efforts and how they should be implemented.
“People have different ways of looking at the world, and these views influence their perceptions of risks, benefits and costs of various policy interventions and shape how people act,” says Komendantova. Using a social science rubric known as cultural theory, Komendantova and Neumueller translated their interview and survey data into four different worldviews, to categorize the types of opinions into an analyzable framework.
“Cultural theory says that there are four major worldviews and discourses: hierarchical, egalitarian, individualistic, or anarchical,” explains Komendantova. “For example, representatives of the hierarchical views would prefer the government taking responsibility for the energy transition. The egalitarian would say that everybody should be responsible for energy transition with the major arguments of fair and equal distribution of risks and responsibilities. The representatives of individual discourse would say that it is a matter of personal responsibility and that such things as technology, innovation, and compensation are important.”
These differences in worldviews mean that although people may agree on the fundamental truth that climate change is a problem and something should be done, they may differ in how and what policies should be implemented, as well as in their willingness to change their own behavior.
This understanding could help policymakers develop compromise solutions that reflect these various worldviews.
Komendantova notes that the study was small and restricted to one country, but similar methods could provide insight across a broader European or international landscape.
“There are a variety of views on energy policy, and conflicts among these views also exist,” says Komendantova. “In order to move from awareness about climate change mitigation to action we must understand the existing variety of worldviews.”