House subcommittee grills EPA on indirect land use

By Erin Voegele
Posted May 12, 2009, at 11:25 a.m. CST

The U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research held a hearing May 6 to review certain aspects of the renewable fuel standard (RFS), including the impacts of indirect land-use change and the definition of renewable biomass.

On May 5, the U.S. EPA released its proposed rule for the implementation of RFS2 and opened a period of public comment. As directed by the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, the proposed rule calculates the life-cycle emissions of each fuel, including emissions that result from all stages of production. While petroleum-based fuels are graded on direct emissions only, biofuels are also charged with emissions that result from indirect land use.

"EISA requires EPA to look broadly at life-cycle analyses and to develop a methodology that accounts for each of the important factors that may significantly influence this assessment, including both direct and indirect emissions, such as significant emissions from land-use changes," said Margo Oge, director of EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, in her hearing testimony.

According to Oge, the EPA has worked with a variety of government and private sector experts to create a robust and scientifically supported methodology that identifies direct and indirect emissions. "The EPA proposed rule provides an important step in advancing the science behind measuring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from biofuels production and use," Oge continued. "Comprehensive and science-based life-cycle analysis provides the very foundation upon which the climate benefits of the RFS program are realized."

Oge recognized that it is important for the EPA to address questions regarding the science of measuring indirect impacts. For this reason, the agency plans to hold a two-day public workshop during the comment period that will focus specifically on the life-cycle analysis. "We expect that this workshop will help ensure that we receive submission of the most thoughtful and useful comments to this proposal and that the best methodology and assumptions are used for calculating GHG emissions impacts of fuels for the final rule," she said.

In his hearing testimony, Bruce Babcock, professor of economics at Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, stated two primary reasons it is difficult to accurately estimate changes in foreign land use. The first is the sheer number of agricultural sectors in all countries that need to be well understood. The second is the lower quality and availability of data in other countries relative to what is available in the United States.

"If Congress and individual states want to be able to estimate with any degree of confidence how expanded production of biofuels changes greenhouse gas emissions, then significant improvements are needed in our understanding of the dynamics of crop and livestock production around the world," Babcock said.

R. Brooke Coleman, executive director of the New Fuels Alliance, testified as well. He said that proponents of indirect land-use effects argue that these effects are part of a fuel's carbon footprint. However, Coleman argued this is untrue. "Anytime you are talking about something ‘indirect' in the carbon world, you are talking about market-mediated, economically or behaviorally induced, carbon effect, which is a fancy term for ‘ripple effects' in the marketplace occurring, in most cases, far from the point of production or use of the product," he said.

Additional testimony was heard from Nick Bowdish, the general manager of Iowa-based ethanol producer Platinum Ethanol LLC. Bowdish stated that it is inherently unfair that the EPA's proposed rule examines both direct and indirect effects for ethanol, but does not calculate indirect effects for petroleum fuels.

"I am deeply concerned that the definition of life-cycle GHG emissions in EISA is being construed by EPA in a manner that unfairly penalizes domestic grain-based ethanol, based on dubious linkages made to land clearing and agricultural practices in developing countries," Bowdish said. "There is a growing effort on the part of some interests to push this ‘indirect land-use' theory without having done any rigorous analysis or peer review."

Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis released a statement in response to the May 6 hearing outlining his concerns regarding the inclusion of indirect land-use considerations in the rulemaking for RFS2. "It is unfair to penalize American biofuels producers for land use decisions in other countries that they have no control over," he said. "The fact is land use decisions are enormously complicated and involve many factors that have nothing to do with renewable fuels, including changes in currency, monetary policy, export needs, productivity gains and weather just to name a few." According to Buis, the indirect land-use change component of EISA should be repealed. "As we heard in today's hearing, it's clear it is not ready for inclusion in government regulations," he said.