Fourth White Paper Released by House Committee

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce released its fourth white paper on the Renewable Fuel Standard.  The white paper discusses the energy impacts of the RFS and the changes in US energy demand in the five years since the RFS passed.  The paper calls for comments regarding the impact of the RFS on demand, petroleum prices, and how the RFS could be improved to better meets its energy security goals.  The next House white paper will address fraud issues.  Comments on the RFS energy white paper are due by June 21st.

RIN Futures Become a Reality

In a development that will increase liquidity and transparency in the RIN market, two major providers are making RIN future contracts available to be traded.  Both CME Group and the IntercontinentalExchange (ICE) will have RIN products available to be traded by mid May.  CME Group and ICE will enable over the counter trading (OTC) of D4 RINs, D5 RINs, and D6 RINs.  D6 RINs are the most common RINs, typically fulfilled by corn ethanol production.  D5 RINs are the most flexible premium RINs, representing advanced biofuel that may consist of biogas, advanced drop in fuels, or other fuel types that meet the 50% GHG reduction standard.  D4 RINs are biomass-based diesel RINs, fulfilled primarily by biodiesel and renewable diesel fuels.  The development of a futures market could provide a substantial boost to the development of advanced biofuel facilities by enabling their financing.  Many financial market participants have in the past regarded RIN revenue as too speculative to include in a plant's pro forma but are likely to be reassured by the presence of RINs in the OTC market.  We speculated in our recent white paper that the EPA's rulemaking on Quality Assurance Programs (QAPs) could facilitate the establishment of a RIN futures market.  See http://www.stoel.com/showarticle.aspx?Show=10180

EPA Proposes 2013 RFS2 Volume Obligations

Last Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency released its proposed rule for the 2013 Renewable Fuel Standard (“RFS2”) volume obligations. Every year the EPA is required to determine and publish the annual volume requirements for each class of renewable fuel that obligated parties will have to comply with for the upcoming year under the RFS2 program. The volumes required under the proposed rule for 2013 are as follows (generally in ethanol equivalent volume): 14 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel, 1.28 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel (actual volume), 2.75 billion gallons of advanced biofuel, and 16.55 billion gallons of renewable fuel. As always the categories are nested and the advanced biofuel volume includes the volumes set for the cellulosic and biomass-based diesel categories. The renewable fuel category accounts for all renewable fuel including traditional corn starch ethanol.

Three of the four categories are consistent with the volumes set forth by statute. The volume for cellulosic biofuel, however, is set by this rule because it must be the lesser of the statutory volume and EPA’s projection of industry production for any given year. As with each ruling prior to this one under the program, EPA set a dramatically lower cellulosic biofuel volume than the statutory volume based on its assessment of the industry’s status. Rather than 1 billion gallons as would otherwise be required by statute, EPA is requiring obligated parties to account for 14 million gallons of cellulosic fuel. Despite the dramatic reduction from the statutory requirement, this is significant because it is an increase over the 2012 standard of 10.45 million gallons that has been the subject of considerable recent controversy.

Just a few days earlier, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that EPA impermissibly set the 2012 standard with an eye toward promoting industry growth when, by statute, the agency should have simply made an accurate projection of what the industry could produce in the given year. While petitioners in that case asserted that the EPA volume for cellulosic ethanol should be equivalent to that which the Energy Information Administration (“EIA”) projects, the court instead determined that EPA’s projected volume should be simply based on the EIA projections. 

In developing the 2013 requirement for cellulosic ethanol, the EPA relied on EIA estimates but also its analysis of more than 100 biofuel production facilities. The proposed rule includes a detailed analysis of all of the plants currently registered with EPA and able to produce cellulosic RINs. Of those 6 plants, it assumes two (INEOS Bio and KiOR) will be generating cellulosic biofuel RINs in 2013 in an amount equal to 14 million gallons of ethanol. The EIA estimate for 2013 is 13.1 million gallons of ethanol – which is also nearly exclusively based on production from those two plants.

Although the EPA also has authority to reduce the advanced biofuel category based on its decision to reduce the cellulosic biofuel category, the agency decided to keep the broader category at the statutory volume based on its projections of other domestic advanced renewable fuels as well as the ability to import sugarcane ethanol from Brazil. Comments on the proposed rule must be received no later than 45 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register.

For more information, please contact Graham Noyes or Sara Bergan.

Requests to Waive US Renewable Fuels Standard Denied by EPA

The U.S  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced it has denied requests from the Governors of Arkansas and North Carolina to waive Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) volume requirements, based on the effects of the drought on feedstocks used to produce renewable fuel in 2012-2013. The petitions, filed in August, triggered a review process to determine if the implementation of the RFS requirements would severely harm the economy of those states.

After considering the nearly 30,000 comments received during the public comment period and empirical evidence, such as the prices of RINs and market commodities, the agency’s economic analyses did not produce sufficient evidence of severe economic harm that would warrant the granting of the waiver request. The EPA analyzed 500 scenarios and found no impact from the RFS program on corn, food or fuel prices in 89% of those scenarios. In the 11% of scenarios where RFS impacts were shown, the impact was less than a 1% change in corn prices. EPA acknowledged that “this year’s drought has created significant hardships in many sectors of the economy, particularly for livestock producers. However, the agency’s extensive analysis makes clear that Congressional requirements for a waiver have not been met and that waiving the RFS would have little, if any, impact on ethanol demand or energy prices over the time period analyzed.”

In its 83-page Notice of Decision (PDF file), EPA interpreted the waiver provision in a manner consistent with its prior response to the first RFS waiver request from Texas in 2008, which was also denied. In both cases, Section 211(o)(7)(A) of the Clean Air Act was interpreted as providing narrow authority. In order to grant a waiver, EPA would have had to determine with a high degree of confidence that implementation of the mandate would not only contribute to economic harm, but would itself severely harm the economy of the State or region requesting the waiver.

While the issue is politically charged, EPA’s decision making process in waiver requests focuses on the legal standard established by the Clean Air Act. The waiver is essentially a pressure relief valve for the program but is only available when the very high standard of severe harm is met. EPA utilized an updated version of an Iowa State University model to analyze 500 scenarios. In 89% of the scenarios, the model indicated that the implementation of the RFS program would have no impact on ethanol production and corn prices. This is consistent with the market reality that ethanol blending is driven primarily by factors other than the RFS, in particular blending economics and the value of ethanol as an oxygenate. A significant additional factor considered in the EPA analysis is the availability of rollover RINs from prior years that can be utilized by obligated parties. To the extent that rollover RINs are used this year, this factor would change significantly should similar drought conditions return next year. 

While this waiver request has now been resolved, interested parties continue to follow EPA rulemaking activities relating to the RFS closely. It is anticipated that the agency will address the issue of RIN fraud in a pending rulemaking. Thanks to my colleague Sara Bergan for her assistance in reporting the EPA's RFS waiver decision today.

EPA Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OAR-2012-0632

Comment Period Closes for RFS Waiver Request: EPA Receives Nearly 30K Public Comments

The deadline for public comments on petitions seeking a waiver of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) expired last night on October 11, 2012. The Governors of Arkansas and North Carolina had submitted separate requests, in letters dated August 13, 2012 and August 14, 2012,  asking for a waiver of RFS volume requirements. Under Section 211(o)(7)(A) of the Clean Air Act, the Administrator of the EPA is permitted to waive national volume requirements of the RFS in whole or in part if implementation of those requirements would severely harm the economy or environment of a state, a region, or the United States, or if the Administrator determines there is an inadequate domestic supply of renewable fuel. Such a waiver may either be triggered through petition by one or more States, a party subject to RFS program requirements, or at the Administrator’s own motion. If a waiver is granted, it can last no longer than one year, but may be renewed by the Administrator after consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Energy.

Following receipt of the petitions, the EPA requested public comment, with a deadline of September 26, 2012, subsequently extended to October 11, 2012. In doing so, the EPA encouraged commentators to review the analytical approach it adopted in its 2008 denial of an RFS waiver request (PDF file) by the Governor of Texas. That analysis evaluated the impact of a waiver of the volume standard by comparing the circumstances with and without a waiver, to identify the impact associated with implementation of the RFS program in the relevant time period. Nearly 30,000 public comments were submitted, including by several Governors, industry groups and members of Congress.

According to Section 211(o) of the CAA, the EPA Administrator must approve or deny a petition for a waiver of RFS volume requirements within 90 days after the petition is received. We will report on the Administrator’s ruling and its significance as soon as it becomes available.

EPA Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OAR-2012-0632

D.C. Circuit Rejects Challenge to Introduction of E15 Ethanol Fuel Blend

In a decision released this morning, the DC Circuit rejected a challenge to the introduction of E15, a gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol, under an EPA waiver grant. Currently, the national gasoline supply consists largely of E10, a 10 percent ethanol/gasoline blend. With fuel manufacturers confronting mandatory annual increases of renewable fuels under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), Growth Energy, a trade association representing the ethanol industry, had sought an EPA waiver for a new 15 percent ethanol/gasoline blend. The EPA provided partial waivers (1 and 2), under the Clean Air Act for the E15 blend, restricting the fuel’s use to light duty motor vehicles and engines from model-year 2001 and newer. Three sets of industry groups representing engine manufacturers, food producers and petroleum suppliers then sued, challenging the EPA’s waivers.

The Ruling

In a 2-1 decision, the court declined to make a decision on the merits, finding that the petitioners lacked standing to bring the action. In a strongly worded dissent, Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh disagreed. Kavanaugh then addressed the merits of the case, finding they were “not close.” He concluded that in granting the E15 partial waiver the “EPA ran roughshod over the relevant statutory limits.”

Where We Go From Here

The decision preserves flexibility for implementing the RFS renewable fuels mandates – for now. However, the lack of a decision on the merits means the EPA waiver process remains vulnerable to judicial challenge. In the meantime, the debate over corn-based ethanol fuel mandates may be shifting to Congress, as predictions for historically low corn crop yields continue to accumulate.

Download a copy of the decision in Grocery Manufacturers Association, et al v. Environmental Protection Agency (PDF)

EPA Releases Green Diesel Notice of Violation

Yesterday the EPA released the third major Notice of Violation ("NOV") against a biofuel producer in the past six months under the Renewable Fuel Standard ("RFS"). The NOV states that EPA has determined that Green Diesel, LLC of Houston, Texas, generated 60,034,033 invalid Renewable Identification Numbers (“RINs’) with a current market value of perhaps $85 million. Coming on the heels of 31 settlement agreements relating to the Clean Green Diesel and Absolute Fuels RINs, this NOV is likely to trigger immediate market reaction. The EPA has been enforcing invalid RIN cases first against the RIN generator then subsequently against the obligated party, i.e., the company that uses the RINs for compliance with RFS. Obligated parties under the RFS are petroleum refiners and importers in the U.S. About a month after the Clean Green Fuel filing, the EPA filed NOVs against the obligated parties. It remains to be seen whether EPA will do so again. The agency may instead rely upon its past actions and its recently released Interim Enforcement Response Policy to motivate corrections by obligated parties.

Some market participants have criticized the EPA for their managing of the RFS program and questioned the RFS program itself. In response, the biofuel industry and particularly the National Biodiesel Board have taken significant steps to address the validity issues. While there is significant time delay as many of the alleged activities date back to 2010, it appears that the EPA enforcement activities have motivated substantial due diligence activities that will serve the RFS program participants well in future years. The immediate challenge is in addressing the new Green Diesel NOV and the resulting contractual implications for market participants who transacted in these RINs. The rapid growth in the value of the RIN market has certainly presented substantial challenges. Nonetheless, private market responses to date suggest that the resourceful biofuel and petroleum industries can weather these storms and ultimately make the RFS program more effective toward its goals of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil imports and reducing GHG emissions.

BioEnergy Law Alert: EPA Issues Notice of Violation to Absolute Fuels

On February 2, 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") issued a Notice of Violation ("NOV") of the Renewable Fuel Standard ("RFS") to Absolute Fuels, a company located in Lubbock, Texas. The NOV alleges that between August 31, 2010, and October 11, 2011, Absolute Fuels generated over 48 million Renewable Identification Numbers ("RINs") and that all of these RINs were invalid. This EPA action is likely to have a substantial impact on the overall RIN market and could be followed by related NOVs to other market participants.

The Absolute Fuels NOV represents the second major enforcement action by the EPA under the RFS. The first action alleged invalid generation of over 32 million RINs by Clean Green Fuel. The Clean Green Fuel action proceeded with a criminal filing by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland and was followed by the EPA's filing of 24 NOVs against the companies that utilized the Clean Green Fuel RINs for compliance with RFS obligations. EPA did not allege that the obligated parties that received the Clean Green Fuel RINs had any knowledge or reasonable basis to have knowledge regarding the RINs' invalidity. This alert provides an analysis of the regulatory basis for these EPA enforcement actions.

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Renewable Energy Law Alert: EPA Releases Draft 2012 Renewable Fuel Standards

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has released a series of proposed rules relating to the Renewable Fuel Standard (“RFS”). Originally enacted by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and expanded by the Energy Independence Act of 2007, the RFS represents the country’s most comprehensive and effective policy in the energy security and greenhouse gas (“GHG”) sectors. The current RFS, often referred to as RFS2, contains four categories of fuel made from renewable biomass. EPA has the authority to set the mandate levels for these renewable fuels. U.S. petroleum refiners and importers are obligated parties under the program and must prove compliance by purchasing a sufficient quantity of these fuels. The EPA proposed an overall standard for 2012 for renewable fuel of 9.21% or 15.2 billion gallons of fuel and also proposed significant regulatory changes to the program.

 

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If you have any questions about the content of this alert, please contact:

Graham Noyes
(206) 386-7615
jgnoyes@stoel.com

Marty Banks
(801) 578-6975
mkbanks@stoel.com

Kevin Prohaska
(612) 373-8805
krprohaska@stoel.com

Sara Bergan
(503) 294-9336
sebergan@stoel.com

EPA Issues Proposed RFS2 Rules for 2011

The EPA has issued proposed RFS2 rules for 2011 that provide some indications that the agency is dedicated to jump starting the advanced biofuels industry.  Most notably, the EPA held fast to an overall mandate of 13.95 billion gallons of renewable fuel.  While the agency intends to deviate downward on cellululosic biofuels with a cut of 90% or more anticipated, the proposed rule maintains the overall Advanced biofuel mandate at 1.35 billion gallons and the Biomass-based diesel requirement at 800 million gallons.  Thus the agency is paying significant attention to the existing capacity of the biodiesel industry despite the lack of approval for the blender's credit six months into the year.  Biofuel supporters hope that this policy gap will be addressed shortly or that RIN values will continue to increase for Biomass based diesel.  

The proposed rule contains two other notable components:  tentative but retroactive RIN credit for canola, sorghum, pulpwood and palm oil biofuel producers; and a petition process for foreign countries to avoid the onerous feedstock obligations that now apply in favor of the aggregate approach available within the US.  The referenced feedstocks have been under consideration by EPA for Life Cycle Analysis since prior to the original RFS2 Final Rule was released but the work has still not been completed.  The severe challenge for this group of biofuel producers is that EPA has previously indicated that RIN generation would trigger only when the pathway was certified.  EPA's proposed new flexibility is an improvement but still falls short of providing full RIN value for these producers due to the lag time and uncertainty associated with the approach.  The proposed petition process for foreign countries is an apparent attempt to level the playing field for foreign producers who now must trace and certify feedstocks such as soy and corn in a manner not required within the US.

The rules will be published in the Federal Register shortly and the public comment period will likely run to approximately August 13th.

White Paper Explains New Advanced Renewable Fuel Standard/RFS2

My colleague Graham Noyes and Clayton McMartin of Clean Fuels Clearinghouse recently published a white paper on the massive and staggeringly complex revision of the federal Advanced Fuel Standard (RFS) issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on February 3, 2010. Graham and Clayton describe how this second generation renewable fuel initiative (RFS2) will bring industry and government together in ways never before experienced by the fuels industry.

With a view to helping market participants develop comprehensive cost/benefit and compliance strategies, Graham and Clayton structure their discussion according to the following key topics:

  1. Legal background and new statutory requirements of RFS2;
  2. Compliance implications of updates to the Renewable Identification Numbers (“RINS”) process; and
  3. Issues important to particular market participants, including producer obligations, new fuel pathways, importer issues and RIN trading economics.

Download a free copy of the Renewable Fuel Standard/RFS2 White Paper (PDF)

Secretary Chu Announces $80M for Biofuels

DOE Secretary Chu's announcement today regarding $80 million of ARRA funding for biofuels is potentially a positive development for the long-term development of the biofuels industry.  What is worrisome from a practical perspective  is the division of funding.  The National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, centered in St. Louis, received $44 million to develop a systems approach for the sustainable commercialization of algal biofuel and bioproducts.  The National Advanced Biofuels Consortium, based here in the Pacific Northwest, received up to $34 million to develop infrastructure compatible biomass-based fuels.  Meanwhile eight infrastructure projects received up to $1.6 million to support expanded fueling infrastructure for ethanol blends. While the Administration is ahead of the curve in recognizing the importance of long-term support for the development of advanced biofuels, it is overlooking the increasingly challenging environment in first generation biofuels.  Simply put- and purely in my opinion- there will be no second generation of biofuels if the first generation does not again thrive.  The ethanol industry has hit a blend wall that the EPA has not been willing to help them overcome in the short term.  Adding $1.6 million in E-85 infrastructure is but a chip in that wall when one considers the massive costs involved in building a national infrastructure.  On the biodiesel side, the current industry has not yet received an extension of its tax credit and was already facing severe challenges.  The investors who supported the expansion of the first generation biofuels industry are still tracking their investments and the policy support for the industry.  While government funding will further the development of the science of advanced biofuels, private sector involvement will be essential to the ultimate commercialization of these fuels.  To accomplish its ultimate goals, the Administration will need to begin to address these issues in a systematic manner.

EPA Extends RFS 2 Comment Period

Last week, the US EPA extended the rulemaking period on RFS 2 until September 25, 2009.  This extends the period by 60 days.  While this rulemaking is  highly complicated and contentious, it is unclear that extending the comment period will improve this situation.  In addition, the effective date of the regulations continues to be delayed.  This could undermine Congress' intentions in passing the Energy Independence and Security Act that established RFS 2.  Let's hope EPA is able to move quickly and efficiently in finalizing and implementing the regulations.

EPA Stalls Regarding RFS Waiver

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson granted himself a continuance last week to make his decision on whether to grant Texas Governor Rick Perry’s request for a waiver of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). As an attorney accustomed to living with deadlines, I certainly appreciate the lure of being able to grant oneself a continuance. Like many others participating in the biofuels industry, however, it is somewhat frustrating to encounter yet another delay on the policy front.

To be fair, Administrator Johnson has his work cut out for him in resolving this issue. Advocates on both sides see potentially substantial impact from a decisive ruling on the waiver. The waiver provision has been described as a pressure relief valve for the RFS. The interesting thing about this pressure valve is that no one knows what pressure the valve will withstand before it releases. Oil industry advocates would prefer a “hair trigger” type pressure release valve whereas biofuel advocates would like to see a more robust fixture.

Governor Perry’s request has some unique attributes. He actually based his request not on the RFS causing difficulty for the petroleum industry- which would have been difficult since ethanol has typically been less costly than gasoline and in ample supply- but on food and livestock supply arguments. Governor Perry’s request also precedes the ramp up period in the RFS when the real challenges will likely begin and thus his request could be viewed as an early attempt to hobble the RFS.

Let us hope that cooler heads prevail. Given the tremendous energy security and cost issues presently caused by our fossil fuel dependence, now is not the time for the EPA to start buckling on the RFS. As noted by the NBB’s CEO, Joe Jobe, "If the RFS is waived or cut in half in 2008, then the growth of all biofuels, including 'advanced biofuels' such as biodiesel, will be severely hindered." As Jobe and others have noted, these advanced biofuels may hold the real key to relieving the pressure on both fuel and food prices in the future.