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The Renewable Fuel Standard: A Decade’s Worth of Carbon Reductions

America’s Renewable Fuel Standard was signed into law by President George W. Bush on August 8, 2005 as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The first version of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS1) called for annual increases in production and use of biofuels through 2012. Congress updated and expanded the program (RFS2) in December 2007 to more aggressively increase use of biofuels through 2022 and to promote commercialization of advanced biofuels. Over the past decade, the RFS1 and RFS2 programs have successfully displaced the use of petroleum fuels, reduced reliance on foreign oil, and decreased carbon emissions from the transportation sector. However, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent notice for the RFS2 program for 2014, 2015, and 2016 proposes to halt or slow growth in the use of biofuels for the future. If finalized, EPA’s plan would forego achievable increases in biofuel production and use, automatically increasing the use of petroleum fuels and raising associated carbon emissions.

Over the decade that the RFS1 and RFS2 programs have been in effect (2006 – 2015), displacement of gasoline and diesel fuels with lower carbon biofuels has reduced U.S. carbon emissions (CO2e) from the transportation sector by 589.33 million metric tons. This is equal to removing more than 124 million cars from the road over the decade. To develop this estimate, we utilized the GREET1.2013 model to compare carbon emissions from the mixture of U.S. transportation fuels (both petroleum and biofuel) under two scenarios -- the first based on what has actually happened over the past decade, and a second based on what would have happened without the RFS in place, where biofuels would have met approximately 3 percent of U.S. fuel demand.

The carbon savings attributable to the RFS1 and RFS2 over the past decade is equivalent to the emissions from more than 124 million passenger vehicles. In other words, having the RFS in place over the past decade achieved carbon emission reductions equivalent to removing those 124 million cars from the road.

Substituting homegrown biofuels for petroleum gasoline and diesel also reduces U.S. reliance on foreign oil. If not for the RFS, U.S. drivers would be using more petroleum as part of the fuel mix. And since the U.S. is now using as much domestically produced oil as possible, that marginal use would likely come from foreign sources. The RFS has displaced nearly 1.9 billion barrels of foreign oil over the past decade by replacing petroleum fuels with biofuels.

Unfortunately, EPA’s proposed RFS rules for 2014, 2015 and 2016 will cut short the emission reduction and energy independence potential of the RFS program by limiting market space for renewable fuels and consequently guaranteeing more market space for petroleum fuels.

The Renewable Fuel Standard was adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Bush to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil and carbon emissions from the transportation sector. The record shows that the policy has achieved both goals over the past decade. EPA failed to set the RFS2 RVOs at achievable volumes in 2014 and allowed petroleum fuels to displace achievable use of biofuels. The result was an increase in carbon emissions at a time that a reduction in emissions was possible. To continue the record of successful reductions in reliance on foreign oil along with reductions in carbon emissions, EPA should put the RFS2 program back on track.

The full study is available for download at: