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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cellulosic Biofuels: Analysis of Policy Issues for Congress

Kelsi Bracmort
Analyst in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy

Randy Schnepf
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Megan Stubbs
Analyst in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy

Brent D. Yacobucci
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy

Cellulosic biofuels are produced from cellulose (fibrous material) derived from renewable biomass. They are thought by many to hold the key to increased benefits from renewable biofuels because they are made from potentially low-cost, diverse, non-food feedstocks. Cellulosic biofuels could also potentially decrease the fossil energy required to produce ethanol, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions. 

Cellulosic biofuels are produced on a very small scale at this time—significant hurdles must be overcome before commercial-scale production can occur. The renewable fuels standard (RFS), a major federal incentive, mandates the use of 100 million gallons per year (mgpy) of cellulosic biofuels in 2010. After 2015, most of the increase in the RFS is intended to come from cellulosic biofuels, and by 2022, the mandate for cellulosic biofuels will be 16 billion gallons. Whether these targets can be met is uncertain. Research is ongoing, and the cellulosic biofuels industry may be on the verge of rapid expansion and technical breakthroughs. However, at this time, only a few small refineries are scheduled to begin production in 2010, with an additional nine expected to commence production by 2013 for a total output of 389 mgpy, compared with an RFS requirement of 500 mgpy in 2012 (a year earlier). 

The federal government, recognizing the risk inherent in commercializing this new technology, has provided loan guarantees, grants, and tax credits in an effort to make the industry competitive by 2012. In particular, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (the 2008 farm bill, P.L. 110-246) supports the nascent cellulosic industry through authorized research programs, grants, and loans exceeding $1 billion. The enacted farm bill also contains a production tax credit of $1.01 per gallon for ethanol produced from cellulosic feedstocks. Private investment, in many cases by oil companies, also plays a major role in cellulosic biofuels research and development. 

Three challenges must be overcome if the RFS is to be met. First, cellulosic feedstocks must be available in large volumes when needed by refineries. Second, the cost of converting cellulose to ethanol or other biofuels must be reduced to a level to make it competitive with gasoline and corn-starch ethanol. Third, the marketing, distribution, and vehicle infrastructure must absorb the increasing volumes of renewable fuel, including cellulosic fuel mandated by the RFS. 

Congress will continue to face questions about the appropriate level of intervention in the cellulosic industry as it debates both the risks in trying to pick the winning technology and the benefits of providing start-up incentives. The current tax credit for cellulosic biofuels is set to expire in 2012, but its extension may be considered during the 111th Congress. Congress may continue to debate the role of biofuels in food price inflation and whether cellulosic biofuels can alleviate its impacts. Recent congressional action on cellulosic biofuels has focused on the definition of renewable biomass eligible for the RFS, which is considered by some to be overly restrictive. To this end, legislation has been introduced to expand the definition of renewable biomass eligible under the RFS. 

Date of Report: February 1, 2010
Number of Pages: 26
Order Number: RL34738
Price: $29.95

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