On Tuesday, October 8, 2013, the American Petroleum Institute (API) filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (D.C. Circuit Court) challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) final rule setting the 2013 renewable volume obligations (RVO) under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). While the petition for review lacks details about the lawsuit as such petitions are for notice purposes only, it is reported that API's main arguments against the rule will be that it was issued too late to be effective and that the 2013 cellulosic RVO set at six million gallons is higher than cellulosic gallons available on the market.
Under the RFS, EPA must issue the following year's RVOs by November 30. EPA did not release its final 2013 RFS rule setting all of this year's RVOs until August 6, 2013. Earlier this year, the D.C. Circuit Court directed EPA to set the cellulosic gallon requirement to levels of actual production expected based on company and other information. The court stated that EPA could not set the volumes at the maximum level of production possible to drive production.
API has been advocating for the full repeal of the RFS on legislative, regulatory, and legal levels. It also challenged EPA's 2011 and 2012 final RFS rules in court. In August 2013, API, along with the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), petitioned EPA to grant a partial waiver of the yet-to-be-proposed 2014 RFS RVOs.
Several biofuel trade groups have responded to this latest legal challenge. Growth Energy and the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) denounced the lawsuit. In its press release, available online, RFA called it a "lawsuit in search of a problem."
On Monday, October 7, 2013, the White House announced that Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to President Obama for Energy and Climate Change, will be leaving her post in the coming weeks. Zichal has been advising the President on these issues for the past five years and is considered a friend to the biofuels, renewable chemicals, and biobased products industries. For instance, she has been a strong proponent of maintaining the federal RFS and encouraging investment in biofuels. This year, Zichal helped lead the effort to roll out the President's comprehensive Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no word on who will replace Zichal.
Butamax™ Advanced Biofuels LLC, a joint venture between BP PLC and DuPont, announced that it has broken ground on a plant to produce isobutanol, a renewable fuel that EPA has determined can qualify for credit under the federal RFS. Butamax is working to retrofit Highwater Ethanol LLC, an existing ethanol plant located in Lamberton, Minnesota.
The announcement is significant because Butamax has been in ongoing litigation with the other U.S. isobutanol producer, Gevo. Also, isobutanol may be one potential solution to the blend wall.
A copy of Butamax's press release on the groundbreaking is available online.
All legislative and regulatory efforts on the federal RFS are at a standstill until the government re-opens. RFS legislative and regulatory efforts, however, were strong in the days before the government shutdown.
Last week, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging EPA to deny the joint petition by the American Petroleum Institute and American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers requesting EPA grant a partial waiver of the 2014 RVOs under the RFS. Petitioners had argued that waiving the RVOs for 2014 to 9.7 percent of the U.S. gasoline supply is necessary so their members may fulfill their volume obligations under the RFS without exceeding the 10 percent ethanol "blend wall."
In its letter, BIO argued that petitioners may not make the waiver request because the RVO requirements do not apply to them as trade associations and, in any case, the joint petition is premature since EPA has not even yet released its proposed 2014 RVOs. In addition, BIO argued that the projected harm by the petitioners due to the blend wall is the result of "ongoing dilatory tactics of the very parties seeking the waivers" and that there exist ample options for obligated parties to comply with the 2014 RVOs. The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) sent a similar letter to EPA opposing the joint petition.
Also last week, the heads of six biofuel trade associations met with Republican staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about Committee Chair Fred Upton's (R-MI) efforts to reform the federal RFS law. The six associations represented were: BIO; the National Biodiesel Board; Growth Energy; RFA; the Advanced Ethanol Council; and the National Corn Growers Association. The associations were unified in their message to staff that the RFS should remain intact as-is, with no changes. The associations argue that the consistency and stability of the RFS law drives investment in biofuels, especially advanced and cellulosic biofuels, and it contains sufficient administrative flexibility to enable EPA to make appropriate adjustments to its implementation, including any necessary lowering of annual RVO requirements for obligated parties. It is reported that the biofuels groups were told not to expect any legislative proposal to be released before EPA issues its proposed rule to set the 2014 RVOs.
In addition, last week, 20 conservative leaning business groups sent a letter to Congress urging the repeal of the RFS. Also, Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax group led by Grover Norquist, began a letter writing campaign to Congress advocating for RFS repeal.
Finally, biofuels supporter Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) sent a letter to EPA asking what measures EPA is taking to investigate claims of RFS Renewable Identification Number (RIN) market manipulation and speculation.
Not only did the U.S. government shut down at midnight on Monday, but so did the nine month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. With no new five-year Farm Bill, the future is uncertain for rural energy programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), including the Biorefinery Assistance Program that promotes the development of biorefineries in the U.S.
As we have reported earlier this year, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the next five-year Farm Bill, including funding for farm, nutrition, and energy programs. Importantly, the Senate bill continues and provides mandatory funding for existing Farm Bill energy programs and extends eligibility to renewable chemicals. After failing to pass a combined bill, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a "farm-only" bill this summer and a nutrition-only bill cutting $40 billion in food stamps just last week. The House farm-only Farm Bill contains an energy title without mandatory funding that will instead be subject to annual appropriations, and it does not extend the energy programs to renewable chemicals.
There has been hope that though the differences are deep, the House and Senate will be able to pass a five-year Farm Bill by the end of the year when mandatory funds for commodity subsidies and food stamps expire. Whether this is true now largely depends on how quickly Congress re-opens the government and raises the debt ceiling to ensure the ability of the U.S. to meet its financial obligations.
On Monday, September 30, 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it intends to award $100 million for cutting edge energy research in areas including biofuels as part of its Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC). In 2009, DOE granted five-year awards ranging from $2 million to $5 million per year to each of 46 EFRCs throughout the country. The current Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) is available online. Under the FOA, applicants must submit a letter of intent to apply by November 13, 2013, and applications are due by January 9, 2014. Existing and new EFRCs may apply.
The $100 million for this program is part of DOE's Fiscal Year 2014 funding request. Whether DOE is provided the funds is uncertain, especially given the government shutdown and standstill in Congress on passing a Fiscal Year 2014 budget.
On September 26, 2013, cellulosic biofuels company KiOR, Inc. announced that it intends to build a second cellulosic biorefinery near its existing plant in Columbus, Mississippi. This second plant, or "Columbus II," is expected to cost $225 million and the Company intends to build it in 18 months after it raises sufficient capital. This announcement is significant, especially as it comes at a time when federal RFS opponents are strong and have waged a campaign to dismantle the law in part by arguing about the lack of development in the cellulosic biofuels space. KiOR's press release on Columbus II is available online.
On September 19, 2013, in a partisan vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by a vote of 217-210 its version of the nutrition portion of the next Farm Bill. All Democrats and 15 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against the bill, which would cut $40 billion from the national food stamp program over the next decade and will almost surely delay final passage of the next five-year Farm Bill. The current Farm Bill expires on September 30.
Historically, the Farm Bill has combined funding for farm and nutrition programs. This summer, by a bi-partisan vote, the Senate passed S. 954, its version of the next five-year Farm Bill that included funding for farm, rural energy, and nutrition programs. It continues funding for Farm Bill energy programs that help encourage biofuels production, and expands coverage to include renewable chemicals. S. 954 would cut only $4 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade.
The House split the farm and nutrition portions of the Farm Bill because in June of this year, it failed to pass a combined bill that would have cut $20 billion from food stamps. At the time, generally, Democrats felt the food stamp cuts were too steep, while Republicans thought they did not go far enough. Over the summer, House leadership opted to split the bill into farm and nutrition only parts, and to get the votes to pass the nutrition portion by answering the Republican call for steeper cuts.
Now that the House has passed both the farm and nutrition portions of the next Farm Bill, it is expected that House leadership will appoint conferees to meet with the already named Senate conferees in an effort to prepare a bill in final that may be passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by the President. No one expects this process will be complete by September 30, but they are hopeful it could happen by the end of the year when farm support will revert back to a 1949 agriculture law. If that happens, there will not be any continuing support for biofuels and renewable chemicals.
Last week, federal securities regulators charged Imperial Petroleum, Inc. and its subsidiary, Indiana-based E-Biofuels LLC, with carrying out a fraudulent federal RFS renewable identification number (RIN) and tax credit scheme. It is alleged that from November 2009 to January 2012, this scheme generated 52 million fraudulent RIN credits and $35 million in false tax credits, and cost investors approximately $60 million. More information is available online.
This is the fourth major biodiesel RIN fraud case, but the industry's leading voice in Washington, D.C., the National Biodiesel Board (NBB), reportedly argues it should not change anything with respect to RFS RIN enforcement because the alleged illegal activities occurred before NBB and others worked with EPA on a new RIN enforcement proposal, which is expected to be promulgated this year.
This week, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) sent a letter to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) asking for an investigation into claims that speculators are manipulating the RIN market in which RIN credits are bought and sold to help obligated parties meet their annual renewable volume obligations (RVO) under the federal RFS. Senator Stabenow expressed concern with the lack of transparency in the RIN market.
Ethanol RIN prices have dramatically risen this year and there have been allegations that the increase has been the result of speculation.