Program launched to authenticate feedstock as 'renewable biomass'

By Ron Kotrba | December 18, 2012

Biodiesel production is a complicated business without even considering the actual manufacturing or distribution aspects. Navigating the intense regulatory environment, overseen by multiple federal agencies such as the U.S. EPA, the USDA and the Internal Revenue Service, is a daunting task prone to unintentional errors. While the biodiesel industry is working with EPA, obligated parties under the renewable fuel standard (RFS) and third-party verifiers to ensure valid generation of renewable identification numbers (RINs)—credits generated with biofuel that can be bought, sold and traded to help track RFS compliance—Ramon M. Benavides, president of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Global Renewable Strategies and Consulting LLC, believes this is only half the regulatory compliance story.

It may be common sense that a qualified renewable fuel under RFS must be made from a renewable biomass, but Benavides said proving this is not as easy as it sounds. “The burden of proof lies with the producer,” he said. “The producer has the responsibility to prove their feedstock is deemed satisfactory. If producers had to prove their feedstocks meet the criteria of ‘renewable,’ 90 percent of them couldn’t do this today.” He pointed out that the RFS is not just a fuel program; instead, it is both a feedstock and fuel program. “The egg came first,” Benavides joked. “Science has proven that.”

“The market uncertainty created by RIN fraud wreaked havoc on the small biomass-based diesel producers and introduced conditions that adversely affected them and the markets,” Benavides said. “Further, the cases that started over a year ago continue to affect industry at all levels and a commercial resolution was needed to ensure RIN authenticity that supports ongoing due diligence efforts. We analyzed those issues and developed the Feedstock Conformance Protocol, which utilizes multiple analytical methods combined with standard daily operational guidelines to identify risk patterns and areas of concern prior to the production of a renewable fuel. As a result, we authenticate renewable biomass and mitigate risk to the industry with the best possible methods to date.”

Benavides, along with Jeff Fetkenhour and Michelle Fetkenhour, of Gorge Analytical LLC, developed the FCP, which, according to Benavides, mitigates risk in the biodiesel marketplace by authenticating RINs on the front-end through a rigorous feedstock-testing program rather than just validating RINs on the backend. In other words, it authenticates a renewable biomass before it is produced into a qualified renewable fuel.

“It identifies feedstock to conform to the word ‘renewable,’” Benavides told Biodiesel Magazine. “Additionally, it screens the feedstock to make sure there are no bad actions or contaminants that would diminish qualification of the finished fuel. When this protocol is combined with a qualified production process, objective evidence is compiled to authenticate the renewable fuel. Over time we became keenly aware that adding additional forensic methods was needed to rule out contaminants, so the only thing left over is renewable biomass and, therefore, the only fuel produced is a renewable fuel.”

Some of the contaminants Benavides has seen in feedstock include PCBs, ethylene glycol, heavy metals such as chromium and arsenic and even motor oils.

Gorge Analytical was chosen as a partner because of its strong history, knowledge and experience in the field. “The Gorge team and I go way back and in my previous career the analytical information they provided during emergencies literally determined survival,” Benavides said. “I asked them to approach this protocol with that perspective and we developed an effective methodology to authenticate renewable biomass feedstocks to protect the entire renewable fuel distribution system from producer to distributor, domestically and internationally, and when combined with fuels testing, it closes the loop.”

The FCP provides a profile of the feedstock before the material arrives at the biodiesel facility, which helps prequalify feedstock for RINs authentication through the combined assessment of  key markers that ensure the product purchased is the product received; adulterants that will affect mass balance criteria; the presence of select and dangerous hazardous materials that would mitigate a nonconformance with Tier 1 and Tier 2 Health data and threats to the environment; the potential for previously produced fuels sold as feedstock; as well as identifying necessary criteria to ensure authenticity of a RIN and renewable fuel by measuring required components in several codes, including the EPA’s RFS, USDA’s bioenergy and biopreferred programs and the Internal Revenue Service’s biodiesel, renewable diesel, and alternative fuels excise tax program.

Benavides said the FCP is complementary to all existing RIN quality assurance plans (QAP). “None of them have this central component,” he said, adding that insurers of companies offering QAPs are particularly in favor of adding such a program to their QAPs. He also said the FCP, for which patent protection has been filed, along with other guidelines and tools are being discussed with the EPA for their recognition under the new QAP rule being developed. In addition to working with government, Benavides is targeting FCP application directly to biodiesel producers as well as seeking partnerships with existing third-party RIN verifiers and feedstock providers. “The FCP has been actively in the field with select parties and is working well,” he said.

The FCP establishes a baseline for each producer or producer’s supplier and then transitions to scheduled interval testing to ensure for the producer that the supplier is maintaining conformance of the initial profile. During this period, the FCP randomly rotates assessment without prior notice through five components to reduce risk of fraud.

It is important to note that the cost of the program is designed to “not cost the small producer an arm and a leg,” as Benavides said. This would involve minimum testing intervals every 90 days.

Ultimately, Benavides said the intent of the FCP is to put assurance back in the marketplace, and keep the biodiesel markets running. 

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