Senate asks for industry input on RFS during biofuel hearing

By Erin Voegele | April 09, 2014

The U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry recently held a hearing on advanced biofuels. The event, titled “Advanced Biofuels: Creating Jobs and Lower Prices at the Pump,” examined the role of domestically-produced, advanced non-food biofuels are playing in creating U.S. jobs and strengthening rural economies.

Richard Childress, CEO of Richard Childress Racing LLC, was the first expert to offer testimony at the event. He spoke about NASCAR’s use of E15, noting that nothing but positive results came out of the organization’s testing of E15. According to Childress, use of the ethanol blend in NASCAR vehicles was found to cause engines to run cooler with higher horsepower, less carbon buildup and better emissions. When test engines were tore down, the parts looked much better, he said.

Jan Koninckx, global business director for biorefineries at DuPont Industrial Biosciences, opened his testimony by noting cellulosic ethanol is a viable and growing industry in 2014. DuPont began developing the fuel a decade ago, he said. In 2009, the company opened a demonstration facility in Tennessee. “Today, this facility continues to turn out data and know-how on how the process can convert all different types of biomass to fuel. [Corn stover is the] first feedstock we worked on, and it is that feedstock that we will be using in our commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility that is currently under construction in Nevada, Iowa,” he said. Koninckx also spoke about DuPont’s four-year efforts to develop a new biomass supply chain for corn stover.

During his testimony, Koninckx also stressed how quickly cellulosic ethanol has actually moved towards commercialization. “Dupont has more than 210 years of experience of bringing scientific innovation to market, and in my estimation we’ve never delivered this type of disruptive technology this fast,” he said. “It’s not the end of the story, it’s actually the beginning. We start with unlocking the sugars in cellulosic biofuels, tomorrow these same sugars and supply chains will enable a whole new world of biobased chemicals and materials, delivering on the promise of an economy that is in part resourced by renewable agriculture.”

Koninckx also stressed that the renewable fuel standard is working as intended. “Seven years ago this Congress set the country on a course that changed its energy destiny, and DuPont, a historic American company, answered that call. This year we are going to be brining biomass into our refinery fit for the 21st century; one fueled not by what is drilled up from the ground, but is actually grown from it. A modern technical marvel that is a model of how to create jobs in rural communities, work with our environment, not against it, and give consumers the opportunity to choose home-grown renewable fuels at the pump,” he said.

Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council, spoke about the volatile nature of the biofuels debate. “I think it’s safe to say that the biofuel issue can be volatile,” he said. “The question is why. I think if you look at the trajectory of the biofuels industry and who is being forced to change, you’ll have your answer. In just years, fledgling industries like ethanol and biodiesel have emerged to create hundreds of thousands of jobs and displace the need for billions of dollars of petroleum imports annually. If you look at perhaps the most controversial biofuel—ethanol—you’ll find that it is also the most disruptive to the status quo. The ethanol industry now supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S. all by itself, and wants to create consumer choice at the pump with fuels like E15 and E85.”

Regarding the development of advanced biofuels, Coleman noted that the U.S. ranks No. 1 for advanced biofuel development among 69 countries, and has attracted nearly 70 percent of global ventures in advanced biofuel.

Speaking of the oil industry’s attack of biofuels, Coleman highlighted the vast resources Big Oil is leveraging against renewable fuels. “The oil industry has enough money to make it seem like it’s raining on a sunny day,” he said. “The very programs that put us ahead of Brazil and China, like the energy title in the Farm Bill and the federal RFS, are under fire from big industries that do not want to see value-added agriculture in rural America and do not want to see consumer choice at the pump.”

Sumesh Arora, vice president of Innovate Mississippi, noted that 2014 is a breakthrough year for the advanced biofuels industry, but that the industry is still in its infancy. He spoke about his organization’s work to support the development of a regionally focused advanced biofuels industry. While the Midwest has vast potential for corn and agricultural feedstocks, Sumesh said the Southeast U.S. is well suited to technologies that can process forest biomass, dedicated energy crops and algae. He also spoke about the potential to generate biogas using poultry litter.

“Advanced biofuels should be viewed in a more holistic manner to include various viable biomass-based energy and biochemical options in gaseous, liquid and solid form. This requires a long-term comprehensive energy policy that provides clear market certainty,” Sumesh said.

Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs at Airlines for America, stressed that fuel is the number one cost faced by U.S. airlines, accounting for more than one-third of total operating expenses. “Although U.S. airlines consumed 5 billion fewer gallons of jet fuel in 2013 than they did in 2000, they spent a staggering $34 billion more. A stable domestic supply of commercially-viable alternative jet fuel would provide a competitor to petroleum-based jet fuel, tempering jet fuel price and volatility. It would also help the U.S. airlines build on their strong environmental record,” she said, noting that the armed forces also stand to benefit greatly from the development of biobased jet fuels.

During the question and answer portion of the hearing, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, spoke about the infrastructure problems associated with bringing more biofuels into the retail transportation fuel. “I often think what a crazy situation we are in…We are trying to create more competition for prices will go down at the pump for consumers, and the folks that don’t want competition control whether or not the pump is there to create the competition. This is kind of a crazy situation that we certainly need figure out how to get beyond,” she said.

Regarding the U.S. EPA’s proposal to reduce the 2014 RFS standard, Koninckx noted that the real problem is that the agency has proposed to limit the RVOs on the basis of supply chain, which the incumbent industry controls. “That is more devastating than any other aspect of their proposal,” he said.

Coleman explained that high renewable identification number (RIN) prices experienced last year actually indicate that the RFS program is working as intended and stressed that the RFS is specifically designed to push higher renewable fuel blends into the marketplace. Arora also pointed out that the E10 blend wall argument is flawed, as ethanol use in Brazil has shown there is no technical blend limit.

When asked if their respective organizations were seeking a change to the RFS, Coleman emphatically said no. “The program is designed well at the legislative level. The issues that we have are entirely administrative and we are working with EPA and members of Congress have been helpful in that regard,” he said.

Additional information on the hearing can be found on the U.S. Seante Committee on Agriclture, Nutrition and Forestry website