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Published October 11, 2011, 09:24 AM

Vilsack says U.S. on track to meet ethanol mandate while study predicts production shortfall

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Oct. 4 he still thinks the United States will be able to meet the congressional mandate to produce 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels for the national fuel supply by 2022, even though a major government study released recently said the production is unlikely to be met unless innovative technologies are developed or policies change.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Oct. 4 he still thinks the United States will be able to meet the congressional mandate to produce 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels for the national fuel supply by 2022, even though a major government study released recently said the production is unlikely to be met unless innovative technologies are developed or policies change.

The committee of scientists assembled by the National Research Council, a division of the National Academies, concluded that production of conventional biofuels and biomass-based diesel fuel is expected to meet consumption mandates.

The renewable fuel standard enacted as part of the 2005 Energy Security Act and the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act called for the use, by 2022, of:

- 15 billion gallons of conventional biofuel, mainly corn-grain ethanol.

- 1 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel fuel.

- 4 billion gallons of advanced renewable biofuels, other than ethanol derived from cornstarch, that achieve a life-cycle greenhouse gas threshold of at least 50 percent.

- 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels produced from wood, grasses, or non-edible plant parts, such as from corn stalks and wheat straw.

Sign of progress?

“The study overlooks many of our recent efforts, including new investments in research and technologies to develop nonfood feedstocks,” Vilsack said in a statement.

“The facts show that biofuels have already helped to reduce our use of imported oil from 60 percent to 52 percent over the past two years,” he said, “but transitioning from a petroleum-based economy is not going to happen overnight.

“I am confident in our country’s ability to achieve this goal and our agricultural producers’ ability to rise to this challenge,” he continued. Recently, “I announced five major agricultural research projects aimed at developing regional, renewable energy markets that will generate more jobs in rural America, and decrease our country’s dependence on foreign oil.

“Altogether, the five-year program will deliver more than $136 million in research and development grants to public and private sector partners in 22 states. In addition to research, there must be market drivers — that is why USDA is working with the Navy and other federal departments on the domestic commercialization of jet biofuels to be ready by 2020.”

Industry: Study misses details

Ethanol groups expressed disappointment in the study.

Advanced Ethanol Council executive director Brooke Coleman said the panel missed an opportunity to cast the RFS “in the proper light” because it “analyzed the ongoing development of the biofuels industry in a vacuum, as if these fuels are not displacing the marginal barrel of oil, which comes at great economic and environmental cost to the consumer.”

But Coleman said the panel was correct in its findings that the two major hurdles to commercialization of advanced and cellulosic ethanol technologies are technological innovation and policy uncertainty.

Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis said, “You can read this report in a number of ways because the conclusions are based on variables that will undoubtedly change with technological advancements and innovation within the industry.”

The report found that the extent to which using biofuels rather than petroleum will reduce greenhouse gas emissions is uncertain, and that achieving the RFS “would likely increase federal budget outlays as well as have mixed economic and environmental effects,” according to a news release from the National Academies.

The Environmental Working Group said the report underscored its position that U.S. biofuels policy is costly and that the production of corn-based ethanol damages the environment and raises food costs.

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