October 29, 2010

Schwarzenegger pumps E85, but is ARB following the science?

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was pumping E85 – an 85 percent ethanol blend – at a new fueling station geared towards biofuels in San Jose, Cal., yesterday.

While he only has a limited time left in office, it was good to see his support for biofuels like ethanol, especially considering that his state's Air Resources Board (ARB) has been so discriminatory towards the corn-based fuel. In fact, I'm wondering if California's ARB will ever adopt new and better science when it comes to biofuels and land use change like it said it would.

Speculation on the subject remains fairly wide open, but remarks by ARB's chairperson Mary Nichols – who has multiple ties to Big Oil – has made it clear that ethanol produced in the United States faces an uphill battle. Or, perhaps, will things change when a new governor is in place since board members serve at the governor's pleasure?

The state's ARB was charged with developing low carbon fuel standards and in the process decided to assign international indirect land use change penalties to biofuels – but not petroleum-based fuels. In fact, the California ARB gave a free pass to oil from several states and countries, including Saudi Arabia, Angola and Iraq.  A lawsuit was filed by ethanol organizations in late 2009 over ARB's regulations. Oil companies haven't objected, but when you're given a free pass, why would you?

The so-called land use change penalty makes it impossible for domestic ethanol to fit the bill as a low carbon fuel as the regulations ramp up and require a lower carbon score over several years.

However, in a single update this year to the model ARB used to estimate its theory on land use change, the penalty assigned to corn-based ethanol was cut in half and would allow it to meet the state's requirement.

Yet the board has not adopted these new figures, which makes one wonder as to whether the ARB has any real interest in making its low carbon fuel regulations as accurate as possible of if it's simply an exercise in politics geared toward Big Oil and foreign ethanol (which certainly doesn't have a stellar record – here and here).

Interestingly enough, a more recent study requested by the California ARB and produced by the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, concludes that indirect land use change resulting from the expansion of corn ethanol production over the past decade has likely been "minimal to zero."

The study reviewed the years 2001-2008, a period when the U.S. ethanol sector more than quadrupled. Yet the conclusion was clear: "Empirical evidence does not support significant effects on U.S. commodity exports [and] other crops or cropland expansion in the U.S."

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, noted, "We must ask why California insists on going forward with a regulation that is based not just on controversial theory, but a theory that has been disproven."

These results were presented to the ARB. Will it make a difference? Will the ARB drop the penalty and help ensure the ethanol industry continues to advance and help meet a growing portion of this country's fuel supply in the future?

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