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Environment

U of M Scientists examine visions for achieving renewable fuel standards in 2022

Scenarios pose large implications for nation’s land and environment

September 19, 2013

How the United States goes about reaching Renewable Fuel Standard targets will have large consequences for the nation’s landscape and environment. University of Minnesota scientists examine three U.S. federal agencies’ visions of how the nation could meet the targets in this week’s cover story in Environmental Science & Technology.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) requires that 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel be blended into transportation fuel in the United States by 2022. Of that amount, 15 billion gallons is to be from conventional biofuels, most likely with ethanol from corn grain. The other 21 billion gallons are to be advanced biofuels from feedstocks and sources of biomass other than corn grain.

"The Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) have all tried to address how the nation will meet the ambitious renewable fuels target, and all three scenarios are different," says Bonnie Keeler, lead author of the article. Keeler is a doctoral student in Natural Resources Science and Management in the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and a research associate at the Institute on the Environment.

Whatever way the nation goes about reaching the targets will have consequences for land use, land management and the environment, Keeler says.

Why? Recent studies have already shown that harvesting residues from existing cropland and timberland simply won’t be enough. Other land will need to be converted to dedicated biofuel crop production, Keeler says.

By comparing and contrasting the DOE’s, EPA’s and USDA’s scenarios, university scientists aim to inform the discussion on this important policy issue, says Jason Hill, co-author of the article. Hill is an assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and an Institute on the Environment resident fellow.

"There are many similarities and some very surprising differences," Hill says.

What Minnesota’s role will be in reaching the biofuels standard is one of those differences when it comes to perennial grasses. The USDA projects Minnesota will produce 750,000 to 1 million acres of perennial grasses in 2022, but the DOE and EPA project none.

"This is just one example of how there are large implications for agriculture even at the state level," Hill says.

The article’s authors hope that their analysis brings the different federal agencies modeling efforts to the forefront of discussion and assists in the targeting of research efforts to improve projections of future biomass production.

"The different visions we present in our article are already being used by the agencies for how they allocate research funds and how they distribute resources to assist biorefineries in securing loans, for example," Hill says.

The other authors of the article are Brian Krohn and Tom Nickerson, doctoral students in the department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering. The article can be found at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es402181y.

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