On January 16, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it has indicted two individuals in biodiesel fraud schemes worth more than $37 million. A copy of DOJ's press release is available online. James Jariv and Nathan Stoliar have been charged with 57 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, false statements made under the Clean Air Act, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to engage in money laundering. In one scheme, the two allegedly generated more than $7 million in fraudulent renewable fuel credits under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which were then sold to obligated parties that needed them to meet their annual renewable volume obligations (RVO) under the RFS. In another, they allegedly failed to provide the U.S. government with $30 million in renewable fuel credits.
This case is significant because it is the fifth major biodiesel Renewable Identification Numbers (RIN) fraud case since 2011. It comes at a time when (1) EPA is working to prepare in final its proposed RFS Quality Assurance Plan to avoid cases of RIN fraud; (2) the biodiesel industry is advocating for increased biodiesel RVOs over what EPA has proposed for 2014 and 2015; and (3) the biofuels industry is fighting to sustain confidence in the RIN market and the statutory RFS RVOs in all renewable fuel categories. It could provide RFS opponents, including many in the refining sector, an additional argument in their quest to repeal the RFS.
On January 23, 2014, EPA issued letters to the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) partially answering their October 2013 petitions for consideration of the final rulemaking, "Regulation of Fuels and Fuel Additives: 2013 Renewable Fuel Standards; Final Rule," published in the Federal Register on August 15, 2013. In its letters, EPA explains that it is granting the petitions by AFPM and API for reconsideration of the 2013 cellulosic biofuel standard under the RFS. EPA explained that it came to this decision in light of KiOR, Inc.'s downgraded production projections for 2013. KiOR has been the largest U.S. producer of cellulosic biofuels, and EPA largely depended on the availability of the Company's projected volumes to help ensure obligated parties under the RFS could meet their 2013 cellulosic biofuel requirements.
While welcomed by API and AFPM, this announcement comes at a time when the biofuels industry -- and the cellulosic biofuels industry in particular -- is under increasing attack by API, AFPM, and other stakeholders in the refining, agriculture, and food sectors. Several leaders within the biofuels industry had urged EPA not to grant the petitions by AFPM and API for reconsideration of the 2013 cellulosic biofuel standards under the RFS.
It is reported that Research and Development non-profit Battelle, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, has a pilot project in which an 18-wheel tractor trailer would be used to convert biomass onsite using a catalytic pyrolysis into oil that could be used to produce renewable chemicals or biofuels. This model could be used throughout the country to help facilitate the conversion of myriad types of biomass into oils for renewable chemicals and biofuels production in a cost effective manner. It would eliminate the cost of transporting massive amounts of biomass to production facilities and reduce the need for much more expensive commercial production facilities.
A research team from the University of Wisconsin at Madison reportedly has developed a promising process using a renewable chemical for biofuels production. Under the process, the researchers used biobased gamma valerolactone (GVL) to break down plants and produce sugars for the production of biofuels. The use of the biobased material could make the process more sustainable and affordable. The findings are published in the January 17, 2014, issue of the journal Science.
Boeing has been working to find sustainable jet fuel. In 2011, for instance, the Company worked to include a blend of up to 50 percent aviation biofuel in international jet fuel specifications. On January 14, 2014, Boeing announced that it "has identified 'green diesel,' a renewable fuel used in ground transportation, as a significant new source of sustainable aviation biofuel that emits at least 50 percent less carbon dioxide than fossil fuel over its lifecycle. The company is working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other stakeholders to gain approval for aircraft to fly on green diesel, further reducing the aviation industry's carbon emissions." A copy of the Company's press release on this announcement is available online.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (R), Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, and State Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Bill Northey led an effort to send a letter to EPA requesting it to convene a field hearing in Iowa on the Agency's proposed 2014 RFS rule. The letter was signed by the entire Congressional delegation from Iowa. A copy of the letter is available online.
EPA's proposed 2014 RFS rule would reduce the 2014 statutory gallon requirements for cellulosic biofuels, advanced biofuels, and corn ethanol. Governor Branstad testified at EPA's recent hearing in Arlington, Virginia, on the proposed rule that it would have detrimental effects on the biofuels industry and rural economy in his state and other Midwestern states. The Iowa delegation expresses in the letter the same concern, and argues that EPA should hold a field hearing in Iowa to hear from Midwestern farmers and producers who could not attend the Virginia hearing and who would be disproportionally impacted by the proposed reductions.
All sides of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) debate had another chance to air their views on Wednesday at the Senate EPW Committee "Oversight Hearing on Domestic Renewable Fuels." Hearing details are available online.
Witnesses included representatives from EPA, DOE, industry, and major trade associations representing the oil and gas and biofuels industries. Their testimony was consistent with their previous actions and statements. For instance, EPA testified in support of its 2014 proposed RFS rule, which for the first time would reduce volumetric targets for all biofuels, including corn ethanol. The biofuels industry argued that the volumetric reductions in the proposed rule go too far, and that Congress should maintain the current version of the RFS law. In contrast, the oil and gas industry advocated that Congress act to repeal the RFS law.
EPW Committee Members weighed in with their divergent views during their opening remarks and throughout the hearing. For instance, Committee Chair Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) stated that she sees no need for Congress to act given the inherent regulatory flexibility contained in the existing law, and since EPA has sought to address industry concerns about the blend wall in the proposed rule. On the other end of the spectrum, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) stated that EPA's action demonstrates that the RFS is not working and that Congress should act to repeal it.
On December 9, 2013, 60 companies sent a letter to the leaders of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee and U.S. Senate Committee on Finance urging them to extend various biofuels incentives. These incentives, including the $1.00 per gallon credit for biodiesel, are scheduled to expire at the end of the year. While industry was able to secure extension of these incentives last year in legislation to prevent the "fiscal cliff," the prognosis for similar success is diminished in light of the current comprehensive tax reform effort. The companies are against any proposal that would allow the biofuels tax credits to expire with the intent that they will be included in broader tax reform.
This week, the Associated Press published an article titled "The Secret, Dirty Cost of Obama's Green Power Push," which has drawn strong criticism from U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and several trade groups representing farmers and the ethanol industry, including the National Farmer's Union (NFU), Growth Energy, the Renewable Fuels Association, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, and the Advanced Ethanol Council.
In the article, the AP links increased ethanol production since the enhanced Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was signed into law in 2007 to reduce acres of land under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). It features interviews with Iowa farmers, including one who claims his words were misconstrued. It is reported that NFU President Roger Johnson points out that the story "neglects to mention…that Congress reduced CRP by roughly seven million acres in the 2008 Farm Bill and is poised to be reduced by seven to eight million acres in the next farm bill." Also, Secretary Vilsack has made public statements calling the story "unfortunate" and pointing out that there are additional conservation programs beyond the CRP.
On November 8, 2013, Congressman Bruce Braley (D-IA) sent a letter to President Obama stating that he is "angered and frustrated" that EPA is considering reducing renewable volume obligations (RVO) as part of its current rulemaking process to set the 2014 RVOs under the federal RFS. He further urges President Obama and his Administration to reconsider such reductions and points out that reductions like those contained in a recently leaked draft of the 2014 RFS proposed rule would harm economies throughout the Midwest and would damage the country's biofuel infrastructure. The sentiments in the letter are similar to ones expressed recently by many representing the biofuels industry.
The oil industry generally has urged EPA to make the kind of reductions to the 2014 RVOs as contained in the leaked draft proposed rule.