What makes an energy source renewable? This question has been at the center of numerous debates in recent months as government agencies around the world rewrite their energy policies in the wake of the massive energy sector shakeup brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and pushed into overdrive by Russia’s war in Ukraine. We are currently living through a “global energy crisis of unprecedented depth and complexity,” according to the recently released World Energy Outlook 2022, an annual flagship report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). According to the IEA’s analysis, “there is no going back to the way things were.” The rules of global geopolitics are being rewritten as we speak, and world leaders are scrambling to shore up energy independence and security in the face of a global energy crisis while also advancing clean energy in the face of climate change. In Europe, a debate has unfolded around whether nuclear energy and natural gas can be considered “renewable,” thus making these resources eligible for funding earmarked for climate initiatives. The European Union ultimately decided that under specific circumstances, both nuclear and natural gas could be included under “environmentally sustainable economic activities.” The decision was divisive, provoking an outcry of greenwashing as well as complaints over continued dependence upon the Kremlin for natural gas imports to the bloc.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a similar debate is heating up, but in this case, the crux of the issue is the cleanness and greenness of biofuels. While this is not a new debate in the United States, it’s become increasingly relevant as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new standards for how much of the nation’s fuel supply should come from renewable sources including controversial biofuels and biogases.
The EPA’s proposal, released in December, includes an increase in Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) quotas, which require certain levels of biofuels (such as products like corn-based ethanol, manure-based biogas, and wood pellets) in the national fuel mix to supplement petroleum-based fossil fuels. “Renewable fuel” is a catch-all term used by the government to encompass “fuel produced from planted crops, planted trees, animal waste and byproducts, and wood debris from non-ecological sensitive areas and not from federal forestland,” according to a summation from Grist.
The new EPA proposal dictates that renewable fuels would increase by approximately 9 percent by the end of 2025, representing an overall increase of nearly 2 billion gallons. All told, the EPA aims to achieve the use of over 22 billion gallons of different renewable fuel sources in the national energy mix by 2025. 15 billion of those gallons would come from corn-based ethanol alone.
Proponents of the measure say that it will help ease the volatility of energy markets in the coming years as the world tries to decarbonize rapidly enough to meet international goals including the Paris agreement. In a press release, the EPA stated that the proposal “seeks to advance the priorities of energy security, less pollution, and consumer protection.” Environmentalists, however, say that this move will have devastating environmental impacts which are antithetical to the goal of greening the energy industry.
Industrial biomass production such as corn and wood pellet production are drivers of serious environmental harm including deforestation, water pollution, and the creation of toxic dead zones across the country and the Gulf of Mexico thanks to the heavy use of pesticides. “Relying on dirty fuels like factory farm gas and ethanol to clean up our transportation sector will only dig a deeper hole,” Tarah Heinzen, legal director for the non-profit environmental watchdog group Food & Water Watch told Grist. “The EPA should recognize this by reducing, not increasing, the volume requirements for these dirty sources of energy in the Renewable Fuel Standard.”
Despite the outcry from environmentalists, the outlook is very positive for those in the ‘renewable fuel’ industry. The International Energy Agency predicts that total global biofuel demand will increase more than 20 percent from its 2020 levels by 2027.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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