Bill compels EPA to act on RFS pathway, registration petitions

By Erin Voegele | June 17, 2020

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., on June 17 introduced legislation that aims to approve certain advanced biofuel registrations under the Renewable Fuel Standard that the U.S. EPA has failed to take action on and set a deadline for the agency to act on future RFS pathway and registration petitions.

According to Thune’s office, the bill would approve certain advanced biofuel registrations that have languished before the EPA despite the fuels being successfully used in at least one state. EPA would also be required to render a decision within 90 days on any registration application that has been pending for at least 180 days, as well as take action within 180 days for completed pathway petitions pending for at least 180 days. The bill also provides $2 million for EPA to carry out the functions of the legislation.

The EPA website currently lists 20 complete registration petitions that are awaiting EPA action, including those for ethanol, compressed renewable natural gas (RNG), gaseous hydrogen, biodiesel, renewable diesel, renewable methanol, heating oil, and electricity. According to Thune’s office, the EPA has been slow to act on numerous pathway petitions, which seek to advance innovative and clean fuels made from renewable feedstock. Under the bill, EPA would be required to render a final decision within a total of one year after a pathway petition is deemed complete.

RFS pathway petitions and registration petitions are related, but separate components, of the RFS program. Pathways are the feedstock method through which certain renewable fuels can be created. Registrations, however, are individual certifications for producers affirming that their renewable fuel meets the standard required by a certain pathway. Thune’s office explained that the EPA approved a pathway for corn kernel fiber in 2014. The agency, however, has not advanced numerous registration applications related to that pathway despite applications meeting stringent peer review requirements and being approved for sale in at least one state.

“Finally advancing proven fuels like ethanol derived from corn fiber technology will permit ethanol producers to produce a higher-value fuel with even lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, as well as enable them to utilize at scale the technology and facility investments they have already made,” Thune said. “The RFS intends for fuel technology to progress, not for prolonged EPA inaction to stifle it. At a time when the farm economy continues to face headwinds and uncertainty, my bill would improve the bottom line of numerous biofuel operators without direct federal assistance, adding value to the corn crop and increasing margins until fuel demand is restored.”

Several biofuel groups have spoken out in support of the bill. The American Coalition for Ethanol thanked Thune and bill co-sponsor Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., for introducing the bill. “ACE members are grateful to Senators Thune and Shaheen for their leadership in introducing a bill aimed at cutting the red tape currently holding up certain RFS pathway petitions for advanced biofuel,” said Brian Jennings, CEO of ACE. “This legislation will help biofuel producers who continue to innovate and add technology to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuel production processes. The delay in application approvals causes headaches for ethanol producers and the companies poised to work with them on innovations such as corn kernel fiber technology.

“While the marketplace is slowly recovering from the steep and historic disruption caused by COVID-19, the most pressing priority for U.S. ethanol producers is direct aid in order to help recover from the ongoing economic downturn,” Jennings continued. “We will continue to work with our biofuel champions in Congress to ensure the next stimulus package doesn’t again leave producers behind.”

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization and Growth Energy have also issued statements in support of the bill. “EPA’s continued delays in approving biofuel pathways and facility registrations have led to an erosion of the RFS as Congress intended,” said Stephanie Batchelor, vice president of BIO’s industrial and environmental section. “Developing and producing these fuels and attracting investment to sustainable fuel projects has been curtailed as a result of EPA’s actions. This hampers the growth of rural America and stymies the development of the bioeconomy. BIO applauds Senators Thune and Shaheen for introducing legislation to provide sustainable fuel producers certainty. Bringing these innovative technologies online will be critical to creating a resilient, healthier energy sector in a post-COVID economic recovery.”

“We applaud Senators Thune and Shaheen for working on a bipartisan basis to break the regulatory logjam holding back cellulosic biofuels,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy. “Studies show that advanced biofuels can cut carbon emissions by 100 percent or more while providing a low-cost alternative to petroleum-based aromatics that poison our air and threaten our health. For too long, we’ve seen major investments in low-carbon biofuels held hostage by regulatory delays, even as farmers and biofuel producers work hand in hand to harness clean energy from agricultural residue, corn fiber, and waste. By keeping pathways frozen, EPA has put an artificial cap on advanced biofuels, limiting growth under the RFS. This important legislation will help clear the deck on long-overdue approvals and jumpstart growth at a time when revitalizing rural communities has never been more important.”