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U.S. sets renewable fuel standards for vehicles

The United States announced new standards for renewable fuels for cars and trucks Tuesday, but stopped short of committing to regulate greenhouse gases that spur global warming.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

The United States announced new standards for renewable fuels for cars and trucks Tuesday, but stopped short of committing to regulate greenhouse gases that spur global warming.

The renewable fuel standards program aims to cut dependence on foreign oil and curb global warming pollution by expanding the use of ethanol and other alternative fuels, said Stephen Johnson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The increased use of renewable fuels ... will prevent the release of greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of up to 13 million metric tons," Johnson said. "That's equal to the carbon dioxide emissions of nearly 2.3 million automobiles."

Carbon dioxide, emitted by petroleum-powered vehicles and coal-fired power plants among other sources, is one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change.

The new standards, ordered by Congress in 2005, require 4.02 percent of all motor fuel, or about 4.7 billion gallons, sold in the United States this year to come from renewable sources. The standard gradually increases to 7.5 billion gallons a year by 2012.

'Looking at our options' on carbon
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled April 2 that the environment agency has the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but Johnson said that ruling was still being considered.

"We are evaluating that Supreme Court decision and we're looking at our options and what actions we may take," he said at a news conference. "Today is premature to talk about it."

In 2003, the environment agency refused to regulate greenhouse gases, saying it lacked the power. Even if it had the power, the agency said it would hinder President Bush's ability to negotiate with developing nations to cut emissions.

California and 13 other states have proposed mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. But Johnson said that in the California case, this would not be possible until after that state's petition is evaluated.

The evaluation process will begin "shortly," Johnson said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the use of renewable fuels "an important part of the fight against global warming and also increases our energy independence."

However, Boxer took aim at the Bush administration's plan to develop such alternative fuels as "coal-to-liquids," which she said generates twice as much global warming pollution as gasoline.

The National Petrochemical & Refiners Association said it supported the agency's clean fuels plan but warned that individual states should not try to issue their own biofuel standards because it could make it harder for refiners to deliver fuel in a timely manner to motorists.

Activists react
Environmental groups noted that vehicles using ethanol blends get 20 to 30 percent fewer miles per gallon than with gasoline and argued that the Bush administration needs to implement significant increases in fuel economy standards for vehicles.

“The president has said he wants to increase vehicle efficiency 4 percent per year, but his fuel economy rules over the past six years raised light truck standards only half that much,” said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. “Without specific mileage targets, there’s no guarantee consumers will ever see cars that are significantly more fuel efficient.”

EPA said the new standards are expected to reduce carbon monoxide emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles and equipment by 0.9 percent to 2.5 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 8 million to 13.1 million tons by 2012.

But the agency said other smog-forming vehicle emissions could rise with the increase in the use of renewable fuels. EPA estimated the standards could cause a 41,000 to 83,000 ton increase nationally in volatile organic compounds plus nitrogen oxide emissions, with effects varying by region.

Ethanol helps reduce carbon monoxide during the winter but can increase smog levels in the summer. Ethanol releases more nitrogen oxides, a key element of smog, and evaporates more easily than gasoline, adding other air pollutants.

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, called the regulations a “mixed bag.” He predicted the standards “will marginally decrease greenhouse gas emissions, but it will mean more smog in many states.”

The Sierra Club applauded the renewable fuels standards, echoed Boxer's criticism of liquid coal and urged the Bush administration to raise fuel efficiency standards.

The Natural Resources Defense Council sounded a similar note, faulting the government for failing to limit emissions.

"What is missing today? Any sign that the Bush administration will follow last week's Supreme Court decision, which ordered EPA to decide — based on the science and only the science — whether the pollution from cars and trucks is contributing to global warming," the council's David Doniger said in a statement.