Statement on today’s EPA Biofuels: Administration “can’t even do the right thing for the wrong reasons”

Statement of Rose Garr, Campaign Director for Waxman Strategies, on the Renewable Fuel Volume Obligations (RVOs) announced by the EPA today:

This was a case where Trump should have done the right thing for the wrong reasons, but he managed to do the wrong thing anyway.

The EPA proposed in October to reduce consumption of polluting, food-based biofuels. But the volume rule issued today tethers us to corn ethanol and soy biodiesel while leaving cellulosic fuels to languish below last year’s levels. This approach is totally backward.

President Trump and Administrator Pruitt seem to have looked at the record-size dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the algal blooms and nitrate pollution across the Midwest, and the climate pollution coming from native ecosystems converted to crop production and decided to double down. I guess Trump found out that biofuels are even dirtier than dirty old oil and decided that he liked them even more.

Clearly, it’s time for Congressional leaders to tackle this issue head-on and reform the Renewable Fuel Standard. To protect the environment, we need to keep the best biofuels and lose the worst.


In Rare Instance, Environmentalists Agree with Scott Pruitt’s EPA: Lower Biodiesel Mandates

Earlier this month, Scott Pruitt’s EPA issued an unusual request: it asked for public input on the idea of reducing mandated biodiesel levels.

While this action was almost certainly spurred by oil companies, interested in reducing their obligation to purchase biodiesel under the Renewable Fuel Standard, it led to a rare moment of agreement between Pruitt and his oil company backers and the community of environmental, conservation and anti-hunger groups working this issue. Reducing biodiesel production would be a good thing.

Biodiesel: Not at All “Green”

The biodiesel industry has successfully marketed their product as clean-burning and climate-friendly, but new research paints the fuel as anything but green. The overwhelming majority of biodiesel consumed in the United States comes not from waste or recycled oil, but from virgin vegetable oils, primarily soy. These oils are closely linked in the global market to expanding vegetable oil production in Latin America and Southeast Asia, two regions suffering massive deforestation for the production of vegetable oil crops.

In short, any increase in biodiesel production means that more land has to come under cultivation, which means that somewhere in the world, a forest or prairie will be razed. And when all those land impacts are added up, biodiesel looks even worse for the climate than dirty old oil.

It’s also no accident that the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest ever this year, or that Lake Erie is perennially choked by algal blooms. In the US, where corn ethanol production is even bigger that soy biodiesel, over 7 million acres in the U.S. were converted to agricultural production for biofuels since 2007. That’s an area the size of Delaware.

What was once prairie, grassland and forest, providing natural habitat and clean drinking water, is now industrial scale farms. Pesticide and fertilizers run-off pollutes waterways, locally and downstream.

Why Reduce Biodiesel Mandates Now?

The EPA’s request for comments comes at an interesting time. The Commerce Department recently recommended that the tariffs be imposed on biodiesel imports from Argentina and Indonesia. The tax credit for biodiesel is also in limbo, since it expired at the end of 2016 and has not yet been renewed.

Both these developments are good – let’s not import biodiesel from countries undergoing massive deforestation for the crops used to make the biodiesel, let’s not use taxpayer money to subsidize polluting fuels – but the story doesn’t end there.

There is still the critical question of what the EPA does with biodiesel mandate levels. If current levels are maintained, but Argentina and Indonesia imports decline, that leaves a market opening for biodiesel production to ramp up somewhere else. Which we don’t want. Even domestic biodiesel production is linked to expanding markets for palm oil, a crop that has enormous carbon emissions.

Where Conservationists and Oil Companies Agree

That’s why Mighty Earth joined a coalition of progressive groups last week, in addition to tens of thousands of citizens, and asked Administrator Pruitt last week to reduce the federal biodiesel mandate. We’re proud to partner on this issue with the Clean Air Task Force, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network and Action Aid USA, and others.

And if this puts us in agreement with Administrator Pruitt and the oil companies, albeit for very different reasons, so be it. We’ll keep fighting them to maintain strong fuel economy standards and move the vehicle fleet toward electrification. But on this one topic we agree – biodiesel mandates need to go.

Coda: Trump Walks Back Pruitt Proposal

The EPA biodiesel proposal drew fierce backlash from the Midwestern delegation and the corn and soy lobbying groups, intent on preserving this enormous agricultural subsidy.

And the administration relented. Bloomberg News reported that President Trump personally intervened, directing Administrator Pruitt to reverse course on potential biodiesel reductions.

The agricultural lobby may have won this round, but it’s more and more clear that that a wide variety of stakeholders want biofuel policy reform. From an environmental and conservation perspective, reducing the use of vegetable oil-based biodiesel and corn ethanol would be a major step in the right direction.

Environmental group cries “fowl” over biodiesel event

Biodiesel not a “feel-good, hippie fuel”


Washington, DC-- The National Biodiesel Board offered Congressional members and staff free French fries today, but the group’s touting of used cooking oil misrepresents the real-world reality of biodiesel production.  Environmentalists and their animal ‘friends’ attended the event to share information about the strong links between biodiesel and deforestation.


“Biodiesel is not a feel-good, hippie fuel. Rather than Willie Nelson’s tour bus, the more accurate representation of biodiesel is a tropical rainforest which has just been bulldozed and cleared for an industrial-scale soy or palm plantation,” said Rose Garr of Mighty Earth.


The large majority of biodiesel is produced from virgin vegetable oils, not used cooking oil. And even recycled and “waste” oils and fats may not have the climate benefits long assumed.  Recent research show as that these oils and fats can be used in animal feed and consumer care products, and diverting them to fuel production drives demand for replacements and expands the global vegetable oil market. The cheapest replacement is often palm oil, which is a major driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia.


“We’re offering to buy that used fryer oil, take it off the Biodiesel Board’s hands, and give it to a Maryland farmer to use as feed. Continuing to ramp up biodiesel production and grow demand for vegetable oils around the globe will contribute to deforestation,” Garr added.


In 2017, significant quantities of biodiesel imports were imported from Argentina and Indonesia, two countries experiencing high levels of deforestation for agricultural production.



Henry Waxman, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Others Urge EPA and Congress to Reduce Biofuel Mandates

To download the full recording of the tele-conference, click here.

Washington, DC—A growing coalition of environmental and anti-hunger groups, including former Congressman Henry Waxman, now chairman of Mighty Earth, urged the EPA today to reconsider and reduce mandates for conventional, food-based biofuels. Over 40,000 individuals also commented to EPA in support of reducing volume levels.

These comments come as the environmental benefits of biofuels are facing intense scrutiny. In 2011 and 2016, the National Research Council and the Government Accountability Office, respectively, concluded that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is unlikely or failing to meet its climate mitigation goals. Recent research has also found that 7 million acres of native habitat in the U.S. were converted in to crop production during the biofuel ramp-up in the years following the passage of the current RFS.

“We’re concerned that most biofuels are a cure worse than the disease,” said Congressman Waxman. “We’d like to have second-generation, ultra-low carbon fuels, but what we actually have is corn ethanol and soy and palm biodiesel. These food-based fuels offer no climate emissions advantages and contribute to the conversion of native habitats for agricultural production.”

Mighty Earth, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and others are also asking Congress to reform the RFS. Desired reforms include reducing mandated levels of food-based biofuels, maintaining supports for second-generation biofuels, and committing funding to restore lost wildlife habitat.

“The corn ethanol mandate has had massive unintended consequences on our public health, wildlife, and drinking water – and it’s time for our elected officials to make long-overdue reforms to the Renewable Fuel Standard,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Congress can put in place common-sense, bipartisan reforms that advance sustainable fuels the right way – solutions that work for family farmers while protecting our water, wildlife, and economy.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune added, "The increase in ethanol production has resulted in the destruction of local land and water resources all while producing the same amount of dirty emissions as fossil fuels. It's obvious that corn ethanol is not a solution to the climate crisis. Communities and families across the country deserve truly clean fuel options that won't wreak havoc on their health and communities. It's high time the EPA stop subsidizing the ethanol industry and eliminate the use of ethanol in our fuels once and for all."

Mighty Earth Calls Out EPA on Dirty Biofuels Proposal

A proposal released last week by the EPA includes troubling news for tropical forests and other ecosystems threatened by encroaching industrial agriculture. The proposal mandates record production levels for biodiesel and corn ethanol. These biofuels, once thought to be ‘green’, are now known to drive the conversion of forests, grasslands and other native ecosystems into crop production, and to rival if not exceed fossil fuels for climate emissions.

Take action and send a comment to the EPA here.

“Biofuels like corn ethanol and soy biodiesel are a cure worse than the disease,” said Mighty Earth Chairperson Henry Waxman. “Supporting environmentally unfriendly biofuels worsens our climate crisis and drives deforestation and habitat loss at home and abroad.”

Only a small fraction of biodiesel is made from waste or recycled sources, like used cooking oil. Most biodiesel used in the U.S. is produced using soy oil, and much of the biodiesel on the global market is palm oil based.

As the U.S. and other governments ratchet up demand for these types of biofuels, agri-businesses meet production by carving new farms out of virgin forests in places like Brazil, Bolivia and Indonesia, as the New York Times, YaleEnvironment360 and our own reports have documented. The forests of Latin America and Southeast Asia are hotspots of biodiversity and critical habitat for threatened species like the tree kangaroo, orangutan, jaguar and giant anteater.

When land conversion is fully considered, soy and palm biodiesel don’t provide any climate benefits, and those of corn ethanol are negligible. In fact, a recent analysis based on a European Union report found that soy and palm biodiesel are worse for the climate than fossil diesel.

Growing corn for ethanol has similar problems, and its effects are seen here in the U.S. The dramatic increase in corn production and has contributed to the conversion of more than 7 million acres of native ecosystems into agricultural land since 2008, according a National Wildlife Federation report based on a University of Wisconsin analysis.

Under the law that governs production of biofuels, the Renewable Fuel Standard, biodiesel production has skyrocketed, from under 10 million gallons in 2001 to 2.0 billion gallons in 2017. Corn ethanol has also seen enormous growth under this misguided government policy.

Mighty Earth urges the EPA to reconsider its biofuels proposal, and reduce mandated levels of biofuels linked to land conversion and climate emissions.

Take action and send a comment to the EPA here.

Major Anti-Climate Provision Added to the Omnibus Appropriations Bill

The just-released Omnibus Appropriations bill includes a controversial provision that declares burning of biomass for electricity carbon neutral – counting it as an equivalent to truly clean energy sources like solar and wind power, even though biomass greenhouse gas emissions generate approximately 150% the emissions of coal and 300-400% those of natural gas per unit of energy produced. The provision is expected to inhibit the development of the solar and wind industries, and also contribute to increased levels of conventional air pollutions. Ramping up electricity production from forest biomass would take vast amounts of tree and woody material. The proposed conversion of the Boardman plant in Oregon from coal to biomass would require 3.8 million tons of biomass a year, which would be sourced from national forests.

In response, Henry Waxman, Chairman of Mighty Earth, said:

“Just because Congress says burning trees for electricity is carbon neutral doesn’t mean that it is. This provision repeats some of the same mistakes in the Renewable Fuel Standard that has had massive unintended negative consequences for forests, the climate, and consumers. By incentivizing dirty energy, this policy will disadvantage truly clean renewables like wind and solar.

"This provision is a blatant attack on science. Science clearly shows that burning of trees for electricity produces far more pollution than even coal. Congress should leave climate science to the scientists.

"The policy also sets an example for rainforest nations, suggesting that somehow burning forests is a solution to climate change. As such, this policy plays into the hands of some of the world’s worst forest destroyers.”

For additional background, see Chairman Waxman’s op-ed on this topic in The Hill.

Other resources:

Partnership for Policy Integrity Study:  “Carbon emissions from burning biomass for energy”

New York Times: “Next ‘Renewable Energy’: Burning Forests, if Senators Get Their Way”

Oregon Sierra Club Study: PGE Tests Biomass at Boardman Coal Plant - New Report Highlights Climate and Forest Consequences for Country's Largest Biomass Proposal

Featured photo: © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Victory: Biomass Loophole Removed from Legislation

BREAKING: the proposed amendment to federal legislation that would incentivize burning of biomass by declaring it “carbon-neutral” seems to be officially dead. This amendment was stripped from the pending energy bill, and the Continuing Resolution that was made public this week does not include it either. We’re very happy about that. 

Staff at Waxman Strategies and Mighty worked closely with partners at the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club,, and a large coalition of state environmental and public health groups made this a top issue in conversations with members of Congress. We worked to ensure that public concern about burning trees for energy, minus any carbon accountability or plan for forest health, was covered in the Pacific Northwest media -- here, here, here and here. 

This news comes just as we've released a new report in conjunction with the Oregon Sierra Club about the Boardman Power Plant (located in Northern Oregon). It is slated to stop burning coal in 2020, which is great news, but it is planning unfortunately to shift to biomass, which would increase its pollution. The plant would be, at 600 megawatts, the largest biomass power plant in the country. We analyzed what the proposed conversion might mean in terms of carbon pollution (way up, biomass has greater smokestack emissions than coal) and forest management (the plant would need 3.8 million tons of woody material a year). The report is available online. 

Featured image courtesy of the Oregon Department of Forestry and can be found here.

PGE Tests Biomass at Boardman Coal Plant

New Report Highlights Climate and Forest Consequences for Country’s Largest Biomass Proposal

Portland, OR –  Today, the Sierra Club released a report analyzing a proposal from Portland General Electric (PGE) to convert the state’s last coal plant in Boardman, Oregon into one of the world’s largest biomass facilities. The report finds that the proposal may pose major implications for air quality, forest health, and carbon reduction goals.

The Boardman Power Plant in northern Oregon is slated to retire in 2020. However, this month, staff are testing the plant’s capacity to run on woody material and energy crops. If the test succeeds, the Boardman plant could be converted to run on 100 percent forest biomass for 5 months of the year.

The new report demonstrates the likely implications if the conversion is made. Key findings include:

  • An average biomass power facility emits 40-60% more carbon than coal plants do per megawatt hour of energy generated.
  • Over 3.8 million tons of trees and woody material would be needed to operate the plant for 5 months a year. Despite claims by biomass advocates, waste feedstock levels are negligible when compared to the facility’s needs. Therefore, whole trees from public lands would constitute the majority of the feedstock needed.
  • Over 800 trucks a day would be required to supply the Boardman facility during peak operation.
  • PGE is growing a highly invasive species of giant cane as a feedstock. Arundo Donax causes major damage to ecosystems and watersheds and is opposed as a viable energy solution by dozens of environmental groups.

“The retirement of the Boardman facility creates an opportunity to replace coal with clean energy like wind and solar, which would be in keeping with the landmark coal transition legislation passed in Oregon earlier this year,” said Rhett Lawrence, legislative director for the Oregon Sierra Club. “There is simply no need to turn our forests into fuel because cleaner energy alternatives are already at hand.”

Even though the carbon consequences of biomass are well established, Congress is currently considering legislation that would designate biomass energy as “carbon-neutral.” Just as oil, coal, and gas must be kept in the ground, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, so too must trees be kept in the forest.

Caitlin Doughty
(619) 787-3912
[email protected]

Featured image courtesy of Tedder on Wikimedia commons. 

Waxman blasts egregious biomass rider

Former California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman is criticizing language in the fiscal 2017 Interior Department and U.S. EPA spending bill he said would amount to a "loophole" that ignores carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of biomass for energy.

"It is absurd to think of burning wood as carbon neutral," Waxman, now chairman of the advocacy firm Waxman Strategies, told reporters in a conference call today. Continue reading.