Midnight Rule

Biofuels & Climate Change

The EPA apparently missed the statutory deadline (Dec. 19) to publish the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the Renewable Fuel Standard. The Bush administration last summer announced that it would not promulgate new rules during its final 30 days, in order to stay away from “midnight rulemaking.” That self-imposed deadline (Dec. 20) also passed.

The rule is said to be a victim of lobbying on the part of the biofuel industry and environmental groups. Marianne Lavelle, a former reporter with U.S. News & World Report now with The Center for Public Integrity, analyzes the activities of both sides, saying, “In the waning days of the Bush administration, a lobbying frenzy is now underway over the indirect impact this homegrown energy solution may have on land use around the world.” Lavelle reports that the dispute is over how to properly measure the theoretical impact of U.S.-produced biofuels on land use around the world. As she summarizes it, “‘Previous accountings of emissions for biofuels haven’t adequately considered that land is a scarce resource,’ said Jeremy Martin, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the experts who met with OMB.”

According to TIME magazine’s Michael Grunwald, the dispute is over whether the EPA will use a “strong” or a “weak” test: “The EPA is now devising a “life-cycle” test designed to measure whether various biofuels really reduce overall carbon emissions from the field to the tank; the farm lobby is already pushing for a weak test, because a strict one could halt the biofuel revolution.” Grunwald, of course, is already convinced that biofuels are worse for the environment that gasoline. (See earlier post here.)

Grunwald’s article represents the problem with the EPA’s announcement of numerical calculations: neither the industry nor the environmental groups would be willing to accept them as accurate. Many environmental groups would like to convince the American public that biofuels are either worse than gasoline or that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is so small that it wouldn’t be worth it. That task might not be very difficult in the current economic climate.

With daily drops in the price of oil, biofuels now are assumed to be unable to compete on price with gasoline. Susan Wilson, a writer at Tech.Blorge, poses the question “Are biofuels still economically feasible?” She writes:

While the abundance of fuel and decrease in gas prices has been a welcome relief to most people in this awful economy, it has also lowered the perceived need for immediate fossil fuel replacements.
“Improving our air quality is a marvelous goal as long as it doesn’t inconvenience people too badly or cost too much. When gas prices were high, switching to cleaner cars and fuels was not only seen as good for the environment but patriotic. Now, it costs too much for people reeling from the collapse of our economy, massive job losses, and uncertainty over what lies ahead.”

If Americans are really wondering why this year’s recession occurred, the first place to look would be the $100-a-barrel swing in oil prices. Perhaps TIME should have considered the barrel of oil for its Man of the Year.

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