Obama admin. launches renewable fuels programs

President Obama took two major steps this week to expand the use of renewable energy sources. First, he ordered the creation of a new administration 'biofuels working group.' Second, he launched the rulemaking process in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aimed at boosting the minimum amounts of renewable fuels in the energy supply by 2022.

The biofuels working group will be an interagency office that brings the Departments of Agriculture and Energy and the EPA together to promote and oversee the creation of a marketplace and infrastructure for producing, transporting, selling and distributing biofuels. In addition, the group will enforce environmental protection and oversee public health issues related to the project.

In a joint press teleconference with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, May 5th, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “Expanding our biofuels infrastructure provides a unique opportunity to spur rural economic development while reducing our dependence on foreign oil – one of the great challenges of the 21st century.'

Vilsack added that the president wants the new group to work with industry 'to figure out how we might be able to do a better job of creating a market for these biofuels we're going to produce.' Another goal of the group will be to work on accelerating the availability of renewable fuels in an environmentally friendly way.

Currently, corn-based ethanol is the predominant biofuel on the market. The working group has been tasked to bring cellulosic biofuels, biomass-based diesel, advanced biofuels and total renewable fuel into the marketplace as well.

Critics of corn-based ethanol argue that it is too closely tied to a food product to be an effective replacement for non-renewable fossil fuels. High food prices and serious environmental problems, like soil erosion, could result. In fact, the energy required to produce it might offset environmental or financial benefits the end-product may possess, a 2009 study by the found.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters that the president's plan includes corn-based ethanol, but that the goal is to transition to alternatives in the next few years. 'Corn-based ethanol is a bridge,' Jackson said. 'It is a bridge to the next generation of biofuels and other ethanols.'

In addition to consuming far less energy than corn-based ethanol to produce, experts believe that cellulosic ethanol and biomass diesel can be made from agricultural and other waste products instead of edible food products.

Secretary Vilsack emphasized this latter point in order to allay fears that farmers who earn income from selling corn for ethanol production might be hurt financially by the transition. 'Part of the cellulosic material that might be looked at in the future will be the corn stover, the waste product of the corn production process. So that is another opportunity for producers to profit,' he said.

The president's economic recovery act provides some $785 billion for investments in building refineries for these new types of fuels. That is on top of over $1 billion allocated by the Farm Bill.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu linked the administration's goals to solving both the climate crisis and the need for job creation. “Developing the next generation of biofuels is key to our effort to end our dependence on foreign oil and address the climate crisis – while creating millions of new jobs that can't be outsourced,” he said.

If the EPA rule is adopted, a minimum of 36 billions gallons of biofuels would be required as part of the national fuel supply by 2022. In addition, the rule would set significant targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Put into perspective, the EPA rule would order an average of about 10 million gallons per day of renewable fuels be in the marketplace by 2022. Currently, the Department of Energy estimates that US drivers consume about 390 million gallons of gasoline each day, a number that is expected to grow over the next 13 years.