U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy today said that the renewable fuel standard is a "vital" tool for addressing climate change and that her agency is committed to building up the domestic biofuels industry.
But she cautioned that EPA has to tread carefully with determining annual biofuel mandates under the RFS program to pass muster in the courts. The administrator addressed her remarks to an ethanol industry crowd at an annual Capitol Hill fly-in organized by trade group Growth Energy.
"The last thing I want to do is give you what you want and then we fall flat when we go to the courts," she said.
Congress wrote the RFS into the Clean Air Act in 2007 to require the use of increasing amounts of conventional ethanol and advanced biofuels.
McCarthy’s remarks come as EPA is facing intense criticism from the biofuels industry for a proposal to scale back refiners’ renewable fuel mandates for 2014, 2015 and 2016 compared to the levels that Congress wrote into the law.
Several biofuel trade groups have warned that the proposal stands to overturn gains made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. EPA’s proposal released in May was largely based on the short-term constraints to adding more ethanol into the fuel system that constitute the "blend wall."
Calling climate change "one of the biggest moral dilemmas we have," McCarthy maintained that the renewable fuel standard is part of President Obama’s bigger climate change agenda that also includes the Clean Power Plan.
She said she believes that the renewable fuels program is at a "tipping point" and that EPA’s goal is to continue to drive investment in the biofuels industry for the purpose of addressing climate change.
EPA aims "to make sure that the renewable fuel standard program is moving toward the levels that Congress actually intended. I understand that that is my job," McCarthy said, adding that the goal is to "turn RFS into the program that Congress intended it to be and have it be and remain a vital part of the president’s climate agenda."
EPA received more than 650,000 comments in a public comment period on its proposal, many from critics of the program — including in the oil industry — who pushed for lower biofuel targets. McCarthy told the ethanol producers that EPA has "heard" the concerns about the proposed targets and that the agency will issue a final rule by a court-ordered deadline of Nov. 30 based on data it has received.
EPA’s challenge, McCarthy said, is to set ambitious but achievable goals that a court would see as reasonable.
"The agency is still in the position of looking at the comments and understanding where we missed the boat," she said.
Earlier today at the ethanol conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged his department’s continuing support to the biofuels industry. Last week, USDA awarded $100 million to 21 states for building gas station infrastructure needed to add more ethanol into gasoline.
Vilsack said that his department will soon also issue reports focused on the biofuels sector’s contribution to the country and on the industry’s positive environmental impacts.
The reports are partly an effort to push back against an analysis issued last week by the American Petroleum Institute that found achieving the biofuel levels Congress set out in the RFS would increase gas prices by more than $90 a gallon.
"We can make the environmental case" for the renewable fuel standard, Vilsack said.