In Rare Instance, Environmentalists Agree with Scott Pruitt’s EPA: Lower Biodiesel Mandates

Sydney Jones

Press Secretary

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Carole Mitchell

Sr. Director Communications

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Earlier this month, Scott Pruitt’s EPA issued an unusual request: it asked for public input on the idea of reducing mandated biodiesel levels.

While this action was almost certainly spurred by oil companies, interested in reducing their obligation to purchase biodiesel under the Renewable Fuel Standard, it led to a rare moment of agreement between Pruitt and his oil company backers and the community of environmental, conservation and anti-hunger groups working this issue. Reducing biodiesel production would be a good thing.

Biodiesel: Not at All “Green”

The biodiesel industry has successfully marketed their product as clean-burning and climate-friendly, but new research paints the fuel as anything but green. The overwhelming majority of biodiesel consumed in the United States comes not from waste or recycled oil, but from virgin vegetable oils, primarily soy. These oils are closely linked in the global market to expanding vegetable oil production in Latin America and Southeast Asia, two regions suffering massive deforestation for the production of vegetable oil crops.

In short, any increase in biodiesel production means that more land has to come under cultivation, which means that somewhere in the world, a forest or prairie will be razed. And when all those land impacts are added up, biodiesel looks even worse for the climate than dirty old oil.

It’s also no accident that the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest ever this year, or that Lake Erie is perennially choked by algal blooms. In the US, where corn ethanol production is even bigger that soy biodiesel, over 7 million acres in the U.S. were converted to agricultural production for biofuels since 2007. That’s an area the size of Delaware.

What was once prairie, grassland and forest, providing natural habitat and clean drinking water, is now industrial scale farms. Pesticide and fertilizers run-off pollutes waterways, locally and downstream.

Why Reduce Biodiesel Mandates Now?

The EPA’s request for comments comes at an interesting time. The Commerce Department recently recommended that the tariffs be imposed on biodiesel imports from Argentina and Indonesia. The tax credit for biodiesel is also in limbo, since it expired at the end of 2016 and has not yet been renewed.

Both these developments are good – let’s not import biodiesel from countries undergoing massive deforestation for the crops used to make the biodiesel, let’s not use taxpayer money to subsidize polluting fuels – but the story doesn’t end there.

There is still the critical question of what the EPA does with biodiesel mandate levels. If current levels are maintained, but Argentina and Indonesia imports decline, that leaves a market opening for biodiesel production to ramp up somewhere else. Which we don’t want. Even domestic biodiesel production is linked to expanding markets for palm oil, a crop that has enormous carbon emissions.

Where Conservationists and Oil Companies Agree

That’s why Mighty Earth joined a coalition of progressive groups last week, in addition to tens of thousands of citizens, and asked Administrator Pruitt last week to reduce the federal biodiesel mandate. We’re proud to partner on this issue with the Clean Air Task Force, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network and Action Aid USA, and others.

And if this puts us in agreement with Administrator Pruitt and the oil companies, albeit for very different reasons, so be it. We’ll keep fighting them to maintain strong fuel economy standards and move the vehicle fleet toward electrification. But on this one topic we agree – biodiesel mandates need to go.

Coda: Trump Walks Back Pruitt Proposal

The EPA biodiesel proposal drew fierce backlash from the Midwestern delegation and the corn and soy lobbying groups, intent on preserving this enormous agricultural subsidy.

And the administration relented. Bloomberg News reported that President Trump personally intervened, directing Administrator Pruitt to reverse course on potential biodiesel reductions.

The agricultural lobby may have won this round, but it’s more and more clear that that a wide variety of stakeholders want biofuel policy reform. From an environmental and conservation perspective, reducing the use of vegetable oil-based biodiesel and corn ethanol would be a major step in the right direction.

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