EPA Administrator Sheds Light on Biomass Energy in Clean Power Plan

– by Erin Voegele, February 16, 2016, Biomass Magazine

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Photo: Biomass Magazine

On Feb. 11, the House Committee on Agriculture held a hearing on U.S. EPA policies that impact the rural economy. The renewable fuel standard (RFS) and Clean Power Plan were among the programs discussed during the nearly three-hour event.

In her testimony, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said that the agency has taken steps to improve implementation of the RFS and continues to approve new agricultural feedstocks, increasing the number of pathways that biofuel producers may use to qualify their biofuel under the program. “We improved the quality, transparency, and efficiency of our petition review process for new biofuel pathways, clarified qualifying biofuels, and conducted lifecycle analyses on several new feedstocks,” she said. “The EPA remains committed to the RFS program and meeting Congress’s intent to responsibly grow renewable fuels over time.”

Responding to several questions posed during the hearing, McCarthy stressed that the EPA intends to keep on track with its future RFS rulemaking. While not specifically addressed by McCarthy during the hearing, the EPA’s Regulatory Development and Retrospective Review Tracker currently states the agency initiated rulemaking for the 2017 RFS standards and 2018 standards for biomass-based diesel in August, with a notice of proposed rulemaking expected to be published in the Federal Register in June.

Regarding questions on RFS volume requirements, McCarthy noted the recently completed RFS rule to set 2014, 2015 and 2016 renewable volume obligations (RVOs), as well as 2017 RVOs for biomass-based diesel provide steady growth for the program. Responding to criticism over RVOs set below statutory levels, she said the RVO numbers represent “our assessment of what we can achieve attempting full-boar to get to the statutory levels, but recognizing that leaps like this in the shorter time frame is not possible. So, we want to achieve those statutory levels, and we understand that’s what congress intended, but there is a growth we recognized and factors that impact…[the] ability for us to be able to get that fuel in the system.” McCarthy also stressed that the recently finalized RFS rulemaking does push blend levels beyond the E10 blend wall, but noted while the agency wants to get to statutory levels as soon as possible, it has to consider factors such as how reasonable it is to achieve those levels within a certain time period.

She also stressed that cellulosic fuels have not developed as quickly as Congress originally anticipated, which is one reason why statutory RFS levels are difficult to meet.

Rep. Steven King, R-Iowa, submitted several questions related to the agency’s approval of E15, a sunset date for the RFS, Reid vapor pressure, and allegations that the EPA relied on a Chevron consultant to design test fuels. McCarthy indicated her office would look into several of those issues and report back to the committee.

McCarthy was also asked about EPA’s collaboration with the USDA when it comes to the RFS program. She said cooperation is extensive with conversations on every level of the program. This includes on how the EPA looks at feedstocks, lifecycle impacts, and several other issues. The agencies also collaborate on what can be done to advance the installation of blender pumps and what the EPA needs to do in order to make sure those blends can be utilized.

Regarding the Clean Power Plan, McCarthy addressed the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that implementation of the program must be delayed until legal challenges are resolved. She said, however, that the agency will continue to work with states on a voluntary basis while the legal challenges are being resolved.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., asked specifically about the EPA’s treatment of biomass under the program. McCarthy stressed biomass is expected to be a “really important” part of the plan, with many states expected to include biomass as part of their compliance strategies. She noted that the EPA understands that states are looking for additional guidance on how biomass can contribute to compliance with the program. A meeting and webinar focused on the matter currently scheduled for April 7.

Kuster, who is a member of the Congressional Biomass Caucus, said the group is hoping to set up an event in Washington, D.C., where EPA staff could educate members of congress on the role of biomass in the Clean Power Plan. McCarthy expressed significant interest in the idea, suggesting the event could be held soon after the April 7 meeting.

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