The EPA has announced it will delay planned greenhouse gas (GHG) permitting requirements for biomass for at least three years. The delay is welcome news for the biofuel advocates, who have been warning that EPA plans to regulate biogenic CO2 emissions would negatively impact the renewable fuels industry.

Now, the biofuels industry has some breathing room. For the next three years the EPA will study the issues surrounding biomass emissions and decide how best to shape regulations.

On Jan. 13, Matt Hartwig, Renewable Fuels Association director of public affairs, spoke with Delta Farm Press about the EPA decision. Among his comments:

Can you talk about the scope of this?

Basically, EPA was putting together greenhouse gas emission regulations. One of their proposals was to measure and regulate what are considered ‘biogenic’ emissions. Those are greenhouse gas emissions – basically CO2 – that occur when you convert biomass into an energy source.

“This would apply to, for instance, a wood-to-power facility the same way it would apply in converting corn into ethanol.

“Our argument to EPA was ‘you shouldn’t regulate these emissions because they are, essentially, naturally-occurring.’ If you leave an apple outside for too long, the sugars will eventually ferment into alcohol. That’s what ethanol production is.

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“Another point we made to the EPA was ‘you’re talking about emissions that are, in a very basic sense, carbon neutral.’ Any release of CO2 you get during the conversion of biomass material was absorbed out of the atmosphere as that biomass material grew. So, essentially, you’re not adding new net carbon molecules to the atmosphere.

“The danger was, under this proposal, some of the ethanol plants that are today in compliance with GHG emissions would be out of compliance if the biogenic emissions were included.

“So, we argued the science of the proposal – the science doesn’t support it. Second, the EPA was trying to enforce unscientific theory – or, at least, unproven science – with very real financial penalties.

“So, we think EPAs decision to delay their decision for three years was a good step. That was recognition the science was there and they’re taking the time to get it right.”

How long has RFA been talking to the EPA about this specific issue?

“Within the last year this has come up as EPA sought to regulate GHG emissions more vigorously.”

The other aspects of EPA’s potential GHG emissions regulations haven’t been touched?

“Right. There are some other provisions of what EPA is trying to do that are moving forward. But those don’t have an impact on our industry so we haven’t commented.

“The biogenic emissions would have an impact so we’ve tried to work with EPA to get them right.”

How receptive was the EPA to speaking with the RFA about this?

“Certainly, we had concerns about the way EPA was addressing it. Ultimately, what’s important is the result.

“And we think EPA did the right thing, here. Instead of implementing science they thought was ready for prime-time, they said ‘no, we’ll take a step back and reevaluate.’

“Unfortunately, they didn’t do that with the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) when they included things like indirect land-use change. But in this instance, they did the right thing and we’re thankful for the additional time to work with EPA to get the regulation right.

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“In a real-carbon world, we believe ethanol stands up very well to fossil fuels like petroleum. But that’s only true if you are counting things equally and as they should be.”

Did you get any indication why a three-year delay?

“I’m not sure why it’s three years instead of one year or six months.”

Other things you’re tackling with the EPA?           

“There’s always something. We continue to work with them on the E-15 issue … and following science to its logical end: approval of E-15 for all cars and light-duty pickups…

“We’ll continue to work with them on issues regarding the RFS and greenhouse gas calculations for ethanol. There are some things EPA has chosen to include in its calculation of greenhouse gas emissions for ethanol under the RFS that we think that” are scientifically unsound. “There’s never a shortage of issues to work on with the federal government.”