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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): Overview and Issues

Randy Schnepf
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Brent D. Yacobucci
Section Research Manager

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. One of the more prominent forms of federal policy support is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)—whereby a minimum volume of biofuels is to be used in the national transportation fuel supply each year. This report describes the general nature of the RFS mandate and its implementation, and outlines some emerging issues related to the continued growth of 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 the 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, rising to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Two years later, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA, P.L. 110-140) greatly expanded the biofuel mandate volumes and extended the date through 2022. The expanded RFS (referred to as RFS2) required the annual use of 9 billion gallons of biofuels in 2008, rising to 36 billion gallons in 2022, with at least 16 billion gallons from cellulosic biofuels, and a cap of 15 billion gallons for corn-starch ethanol.

In addition to the expanded volumes and extended date, RFS2 has three important distinctions from RFS1. First, the total renewable fuel requirement is divided into four separate, but nested categories—total renewable fuels, advanced biofuels, biomass-based diesel, and cellulosic biofuels—each with its own volume requirement. Second, biofuels qualifying under each category must achieve certain minimum thresholds of lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, with certain exceptions applicable to existing facilities. Third, all renewable fuel must be made from feedstocks that meet an amended definition of renewable biomass, including certain land use restrictions.

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 and include specific deadlines for announcing annual standards, as well as greater specificity on potential waiver requests and RIN oversight.

Over the long term, the 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: March 14, 2013
Number of Pages: 35
Order Number: R40155
Price: $29.95

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