Soy biodiesel fares badly in EPA calculations

By Susanne Retka Schill | June 09, 2009
Soy-based biodiesel's star rating fell precipitously in the fuel pathway calculations performed by the U.S. EPA in its proposed rule released in May. The calculations were included in EPA's proposed rule to implement the Renewable Fuels Standard passed in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. The RFS carves out a mandate for biomass-based diesel with a targeted 50 percent greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction when compared to conventional diesel.

By far the major culprit in biodiesel's fall in GHG benefits was the incorporation of international indirect land use change impacts into the calculations. Earlier life cycle analyses kept the focus on the more direct supply chain contributions, including such things as the carbon emissions involved in raising the crop and transporting it to market; and the energy used in conversion and transporting the fuel to the end user. Biodiesel showed nearly an 80 percent GHG benefit in some of those earlier models.

Incorporating indirect land use change says, essentially, that soybean-based biodiesel is responsible for land use change globally, stimulated by the increased demand for soybeans. In EPA's calculations, soy-based biodiesel resulted in GHG reductions of 22 percent in one scenario over 100 years, and an increase of 4 percent in GHG reductions in another scenario projecting ahead 30 years.


Biodiesel advocates cried foul. The American Soybean Association laid out its critique of the indirect land use change calculations in its May 21 testimony before a small business subcommittee in the House of Representatives:

›The method used by EPA to measure indirect land use is new and untested.

›The EPA analysis uses previous land conversion and extrapolates that into the future, with soy biodiesel land use factors focused on Brazil. Brazilian soy area increased most significantly in the years prior to the existence of U.S. biodiesel production (1998 to 2004). In the period from 2004 to 2008, when U.S. biodiesel production increased from 25 million gallons to 700 million gallons, Brazilian soy area decreased. Soy biodiesel cannot possibly be responsible for Brazilian land use change.

›Other market factors (urbanization, world population growth and dietary changes, timber and hardwood prices, etc.) impact and drive land use change.

›Yield increases by U.S. soybean farmers will play a significant role in meeting biofuel demand, and are inadequately accounted for in the EPA projections.

›The indirect emissions of diesel (the baseline against which biodiesel is being measured) are not factored into the baseline.

The ASA also argued that the statute does not require EPA to include international indirect emissions in the life-cycle analysis for biofuels, and that there is more confidence within the scientific community in the ability to address indirect land use changes that may occur in the U.S. as a result of biofuel demand.

While the ASA and the National Biodiesel Board are currently focused on providing comment in the EPA rulemaking process, legislation has been introduced to amend the statute establishing the RFS. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, along with a bipartisan group of 42 members of Congress, introduced a bill to eliminate the requirement that EPA consider indirect land use when calculating GHG emissions. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.

"Chairman Peterson made known his strong views in a hearing," commented Tom Hance, ASA's Washington representative. "He said he is not interested in supporting climate change issues unless the indirect land use change question was resolved at the EPA." While ASA supports the Peterson and Grassley bills, Hance added it would be quickest and most efficient to resolve the issue in the rulemaking process.
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