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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): Overview and Issues

Randy Schnepf
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Brent D. Yacobucci
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy

Federal policy has played a key role in the emergence of the U.S. biofuels industry. Policy measures include minimum renewable fuel usage requirements, blending and production tax credits, an import tariff, loans and loan guarantees, and research grants. This report focuses on the mandated minimum usage requirements—referred to as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)— whereby a minimum volume of biofuels is to be used in the national transportation fuel supply each year. It describes the general nature of the RFS mandate and its implementation, and outlines some emerging issues related to the sustainability of the continued growth in U.S. biofuels production needed to fulfill the expanding RFS mandate, as well as the emergence of potential unintended consequences of this rapid expansion.

Congress first established an RFS with the enactment of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct, P.L. 109-58). This initial RFS (referred to as RFS1) mandated that a minimum of 4 billion gallons be used in 2006, and that this minimum usage volume rise to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Two years later, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA, P.L. 110-140) superseded and greatly expanded the biofuels blending mandate. The expanded RFS (referred to as RFS2) required the annual use of 9 billion gallons of biofuels in 2008 and expanded the mandate to 36 billion gallons annually in 2022, of which no more than 15 billion gallons can be ethanol from corn starch, and no less than 16 billion must be from cellulosic biofuels. In addition, EISA carved out specific requirements for “other advanced biofuels” and biomass-based biodiesel.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for establishing and implementing regulations to ensure that the nation’s transportation fuel supply contains the mandated biofuels volumes. EPA’s initial regulations for administering RFS1 (issued in April 2007) established detailed compliance standards for fuel suppliers, a tracking system based on renewable identification numbers (RINs) with credit verification and trading, special treatment of small refineries, and general waiver provisions. EPA rules for administering RFS2 (issued in February 2010) built upon the earlier RFS1 regulations; however, there are four major distinctions. First, mandated volumes are greatly expanded and the time frame over which the volumes ramp up is extended through at least 2022. Second, the total renewable fuel requirement is divided into four separate, but nested categories—total renewable fuels, advanced biofuels, biomass-based diesel, and cellulosic ethanol—each with its own volume requirement. Third, biofuels qualifying under each category must achieve certain minimum thresholds of lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, with certain exceptions applicable to existing facilities. Fourth, all renewable fuel must be made from feedstocks that meet a new definition of renewable biomass, including certain land use restrictions.

In the long term, the expanded RFS is likely to play a dominant role in the development of the U.S. biofuels sector, but with considerable uncertainty regarding potential spillover effects in other markets and on other important policy goals. Emerging resource constraints related to the rapid expansion of U.S. corn ethanol production have provoked questions about its long-run sustainability and the possibility of unintended consequences in other markets as well as on the environment. Questions also exist about the ability of the U.S. biofuels industry to meet the expanding mandate for biofuels from non-corn sources such as cellulosic biomass materials, whose production capacity has been slow to develop, or biomass-based biodiesel, which remains expensive to produce owing to the relatively high prices of its feedstocks. Finally, considerable uncertainty remains regarding the development of the infrastructure capacity (e.g., trucks, pipelines, pumps, etc.) needed to deliver the expanding biofuels mandate to consumers.

Date of Report: January 7, 2011
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: R40155
Price: $29.95

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