EPA withdraws RFS2 pathways for camelina, energy cane, giant reed, and napier grass

The Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) requires gasoline and diesel in the U.S. to be blended with a certain amount of renewable fuel. The EPA’s final rule for the RFS2 identified a number of feedstocks eligible to meet this obligation; others must be identified separately as new pathways in subsequent rules. Camelina, a member of the mustard family whose seeds are pressed for oil, and three grasses, energy cane, giant reed, and napier grass, were analyzed as feedstocks under the RFS2 in January, 2012. 

For the four new pathways the EPA issued a direct final rule without first going through a comment period (in contrast to the palm oil biodiesel pathway, for which the EPA recently issued a Notice of Data Availability and invited comments on the lifecycle analysis) because it viewed this rule as “a noncontroversial action”; however, the EPA had “stated in that direct final rule that if [the EPA] received adverse comment by February 6, 2012, [the EPA] would publish a timely withdrawal in the Federal Register.” Adverse comments were received from several environmental groups, and hence the final rule was withdrawn on March 5.

The main concerns, from organizations including Friends of the Earth, Clean Air Task Force, Environmental Working Group, National Wildlife Federation and Natural Resources Defense Council, were that the EPA did not include analyses of indirect land use change and invasive species potential. As the submitted comments from these organizations state, “We understand the difficulty in calculating GHG emissions from biomass production but as history has shown, scaling up biofuels production may result in numerous unintended consequences that either may or may not have been predicted years ago.”

Indirect land use change (iLUC) may occur if increased demand for a crop in one place due to biofuels results in the conversion of forest or grassland to agricultural land somewhere else to replace that crop for other uses. When considering camelina in the final rule EPA indicated that, “Since substituting fallow land with camelina production would not typically displace another crop, EPA does not believe new acres would need to be brought into agricultural use to increase camelina production.” Additionally, the EPA reasoned that camelina only has limited niche markets outside of biofuel production and is not highly traded internationally.  For the energy grasses, energy cane, napier grass and giant reed, EPA considered them to have the same iLUC (or better due to higher yields) as switchgrass which was analyzed as part of the RFS2 final rule.  

The environmental groups who submitted comments to the EPA were also concerned that giant reed and napier grass may be invasive in some areas of the U.S., and cited an executive order issued in 1999 stating that federal agencies are required to make a public determination of the potential harms of promoting an invasive species. Camelina and energy cane are not known to be invasive in the U.S. Invasive species are non-native plants and animals that out-compete native flora and fauna and can be disruptive to ecosystems on a large scale.

The EPA “intends to address all comments in a final subsequent action” but will not hold a second comment period. It is expected that the final rule will either include additional analysis of the environmental impacts of these feedstocks or additional explanation of why such analysis is not warranted in these cases.

Alternative fuels Life-cycle analyses