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.
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.
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.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced that it will provide $40 million for a Center of Excellence (COE) on sustainable aviation fuel and the environment. The funds will be distributed in $4 million increments each year for the next ten years. Washington State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be leading the effort, and several other universities will be involved. For a full list of participants and more information on the initiative, please see a copy of FAA's press release, which is available online.
This announcement illustrates the federal government's important role in and commitment to facilitating the ongoing development and commercialization of U.S. biofuels. This year, the FAA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) renewed their joint agreement to promote the development of aviation biofuels. They are aiming for one billion gallons of commercial aviation capacity by 2018.
USDA is continuing its work to promote the U.S. biofuels industry, which USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack believes helps bolster the U.S. agriculture sector and rural economy. On September 12, 2013, USDA announced that it will provide a total of $15.5 million to 188 advanced biofuel producers under USDA's Advanced Biofuel Payment Program, which was created under the 2008 Farm Bill (P.L. 110-234, the "Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008"). It is reported that through that program to date, USDA has provided $211 million to 290 biofuel producers. This federal support is an important component to efforts of producers in the still nascent advanced biofuels industry to get up and running. USDA's press release on this announcement is available online.
On September 6, 2013, EPA's Office of the Inspector General (IG) issued a report finding that the Agency does not meet the control standards for monitoring some of the new programs and activities designed to prevent and reduce instances of fraudulently generated RINs under the federal RFS. EPA's one-page report summary is available online and its 23-page full report is available online.
The EPA IG findings come at a vulnerable time for the RFS and its allies. Trade groups representing the oil and gas industry, among others, have called on EPA to modify the RFS in several ways, including to protect against RIN fraud. Those groups, as well as the National Biodiesel Board, worked with EPA to design a new plan to help protect against RIN fraud. EPA issued a proposed rule outlining the plan in February of this year. A copy of the proposed rule as published in the Federal Register is available online. The plan is expected to be completed soon.
The group of four House Energy and Commerce Committee Members tasked with examining ways to reform the federal RFS met this week for the first time since the August recess. The group was named by Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-MI) and includes Representatives John Shimkus (R-IL), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Lee Terry (R-NE), and Steve Scalise (R-LA).
Reportedly, the group is looking at potential proposals that could be released this fall. In general, the biofuels industry is working hard to advocate that the RFS is working as it was intended and the best course of action would be to leave the law in place as is to allow it to continue to drive investment in the industry. The next few weeks will be telling in terms of what, if any, proposals may be introduced or considered by the House of Representatives. There is no similar organized activity in the Senate. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has stated publicly, however, that she may hold a hearing on the RFS early this fall.
Congress returned from its August recess this week, and, as expected, the Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives is looking toward passing legislation on the remaining nutrition portion of the Farm Bill, including $40 billion in cuts to food stamp programs over the next ten years. The bill could come up for a vote next week.
House Republican leaders, including House Committee on Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK), have stated they do not wish to go ahead with a conference committee with the Senate to complete the next five-year Farm Bill until they pass the nutrition portion. In June, the House passed a "farm-only" Farm Bill, H.R. 2642, which left out funding for food stamps and other nutrition programs. A more comprehensive version of the Farm Bill containing $20 billion in cuts to nutrition programs was defeated in a previous vote mainly because several Democrats felt the cuts were too large, while several Republicans thought they did not go far enough.
Passage of a nutrition portion of the Farm Bill containing $40 billion in cuts may attract enough House Republicans to lead to a conference committee with the Senate to hammer out a final version of the next five-year Farm Bill, but it will not make those negotiations any faster or easier. In May, the Senate passed its version of the next Farm Bill, S. 954, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013, which funds both farm programs and food stamps. S. 954 contains a strong energy title with nearly $900 million in mandatory funding and expanded eligibility for renewable chemicals. Senate Committee on Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who is leading the Farm Bill effort in the Senate, has said that $40 billion in cuts is a "non-starter." In fact, she and other Democratic leaders in the Senate opposed the original $20 billion in cuts the House attempted to pass earlier this year. This disagreement will likely extend the Farm Bill conference committee negotiations beyond September 30, when the current version of the Farm Bill expires.
On Wednesday, September 11, 2013, the European Parliament voted 356-327 to cap conventional biofuels at six percent of the European Union's (EU) transportation fuel by 2020 due to food-versus-fuel concerns. It also voted to require that 2.5 percent of EU transportation fuel consist of advanced biofuels by 2020, and to target that fuel to contain a 7.5 percent ethanol blend. The legislation does not require that indirect land use change be taken into account until 2020. The proposal must now be approved by EU Member States.