Conventional, advanced biofuel leaders gather in Milwaukee

By Ron Kotrba | June 22, 2016

The National Biodiesel Board’s Vice President of Federal Affairs Anne Steckel participated in a panel with other biofuel industry leaders at the 32nd Annual International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo and colocated National Advanced Biofuels Conference & Expo in Milwaukee June 21. The panel, titled, “Pathways to Fully Realizing the Bold Promise of the Broader Biofuels Industry,” was moderated by Ethanol Producer Magazine Executive Editor Tim Portz and featured Steckel along with Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, Geoff Cooper, senior vice president with the Renewable Fuels Association, and Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council.

With the comment period open on U.S. EPA’s proposed 2017 renewable volume obligation (RVO) figures under the renewable fuel standard (RFS) for conventional, advanced and cellulosic biofuel, and the proposed 2018 RVO for biomass-based diesel, Portz asked the panel at what point do the biofuels industries get out of the “annual RVO dance” in which EPA makes its proposals and the industries petition the agency to boost the numbers in the final ruling, year in and year out.

“Our members ask us, does this spin cycle matter?” Steckel said. “It is essential that we continue this process, and advocate for our industries in all forms. We hope to have stable growth. It’s not fun to go through this every year, and it’s not good for business, but it’s necessary.”

Jennings said RFS policy is the bridge to the future. “It’s critically important,” he said. “Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t show up in droves [to ask EPA to increase the volumes under RFS]?”

“It does make a difference,” Cooper said. “It moves the needle.”

The panel represented an interesting mix of conventional and cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel voices that stressed the industries have more in common than they do differences.

“To go it alone is a losing approach,” Coleman said. “We are seeing biodiesel produced at ethanol plants. The RFS is a transformational program. It’s a performance standard. And we need to keep advocating for it. There’s demand for octane and exports beyond 15 billion gallons.”

“We’ve always had a collaborative relationship with ethanol,” Steckel said, speaking for the biodiesel industry. “We’re both part of the RFS. One of the biodiesel industry’s biggest strengths is feedstock diversity. Roughly 17 percent of our feedstock comes from corn oil extracted at ethanol plants. And, in the rulemaking process for RFS, we’re always pushing for a higher advanced biofuel RVO. Biodiesel filled 90 percent of the advanced biofuel bucket last year. And we also need to grow the biomass-based diesel category at the same time as the advanced biofuel bucket, so biodiesel doesn’t get displaced by sugarcane ethanol in the advanced biofuel category.”

EPA has proposed a 100 million gallon increase in the biomass-based diesel RVO for 2018, from 2 billion gallons in 2017 (up from 1.9 billion this year) to 2.1 billion in 2018. The NBB is calling on EPA to boost this volume so the domestic biodiesel industry, which Steckel said is only running at 60 percent, can produce greater volumes. Steckel also said she anticipates success in getting Congress to replace the $1 per gallon blender tax credit with a domestic production credit for next year, curbing a $670 million subsidization of foreign production, as in 2015.

Portz pointed out the divergence occurring over the past several years between environmentalism and biofuels. “I use E30 because I support the industry, and I consider myself an environmentalist,” Portz said, asking the panel what the biofuels industry can do to reclaim the status of environmentalism.

“The people in this room produce the cleanest transportation fuel on the planet, yet people tell us we’re not clean enough,” Jennings said. “We have to engage those who will be reasonable with us. Don’t be shy about being an environmentalist.”

“We have made progress,” Cooper said. “We are flooding them with better, newer data with what is happening on their farms and providing science to support this position.”

“The environmental community continues to be important, particularly in terms of carbon reduction,” Steckel said. “But if we don’t tell our own story, someone else will—and it won’t be how we want it.”