Dispute Over Small Refinery Waivers Under RFS Continues to Flare
Dissatisfaction among grower groups and biofuel sector leaders remains high with EPA’s latest proposal to reallocate renewable fuel volumes to compensate for ethanol and biodiesel output lost because of a surge in small refinery exemptions (SREs) the agency has granted in recent year.
RFA President & CEO Geoff Cooper
“[T]he current administration’s approach to implementation has destabilized the [Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)] and created significant uncertainty in the marketplace,” says Renewable Fuels Association President Geoff Cooper. “Specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency’s liberal granting of compliance waivers to small oil refineries has resulted in lower production and use of ethanol, increased emissions, higher consumer gas prices and lost jobs.”
EPA’s supposed “fix” last month to a waiver system that has drawn the longtime ire of the biofuels sector has made few people happy. Even President Trump does not like the EPA’s plan, according to Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) in a phone teleconference with Iowa reporters earlier this month .
Ernst was among seven senators from corn- and ethanol-heavy Midwestern states who each addressed the EPA plan in comments filed in response to what the agency calls “adjustments to the way that annual renewable fuel percentages are calculated.”
The percentages are used to calculate the number of gallons each refinery is required to blend into their fuel or to otherwise obtain renewable identification numbers (RINs) to demonstrate compliance.
In its notice of public comment, which ends Friday (Nov. 29), the agency says it “is seeking comment on projecting the volume of gasoline and diesel that will be exempt in 2020 due to small refinery exemptions based on a three-year average of the relief recommended by the Department of Energy (DOE), including where DOE had recommended partial exemptions.”
In their comments to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, all seven senators expressed concerns about the way the agency would calculate the reallocation of renewable fuel gallons lost due to exemptions for oil refineries.
“It is time again for the EPA to get this policy right, respect the President’s intent, and uphold the law as it was written,” Ernst said. “This means providing certainty that they will ensure that 15 billion gallons of ethanol will be blended each year.”
The comments were filed around the time Valero Energy temporarily halted production of ethanol at plants in Michigan and Indiana, bringing to 21 the number of plants that have been closed or idled this year, following the disclosure in August that the EPA grant 31 small refineries with exemptions to their RFS obligations.
Though all “small” refineries have an output no greater than 75,000 gallons per day, some receiving SREs are owned by oil giants like Exxon-Mobil and Chevron.
The DOE’s Energy Information Administration says the 31 SREs the EPA issued for the 2018 compliance year effectively reduced the amount of biofuel required to enter the nation’s fuel supply by 7.4 percent, or about 1.43 billion gallons.
The agency has granted a total of 85 waivers over 2016, 2017 and 2018, totaling nearly 4 billion gallons of ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels that were not blended with petroleum. That compares to 23 waivers granted over all of the previous three years, exempting some 730 million gallons.
Following negotiations held at the White House, biofuel and grower groups said they were told the EPA would account for exemptions to the RFS by averaging the actual volumes waived from 2016 to 2018 and restore those amounts. The agency instead proposed using the DOE recommendations on waived volumes from 2015 to 2017, a number that represents only a fraction of the total number of gallons actually exempted over those three years.
Finding Common Ground on Soil Carbon, Climate Change
The ambitious, international initiative – 4per1000 – has increased the visibility of efforts aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by building soil carbon, including those mounted by NACSAA. But it has also led to disagreements among scientists over how much carbon can realistically be stored in soil.
In an opinion published this week in Nature Sustainability, a group of scientists argues that this disagreement is part of the normal scientific process. However, they posit, the public debate is undermining the potential for policymakers to implement policies that build soil carbon for other environmental and agricultural benefits.
“A lot of scientists began arguing about the feasibility of increasing soil carbon year-on-year at a rate consistent with the 4per1000 goal,” said Mark Bradford, professor of soils and ecosystem ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). “There were many good scientists backing this initiative.But many others who were skeptical of the number…the arguments missed the point.”
Disagreements among scientists about the effectiveness and plausibility of rebuilding SOC to combat climate change have become more frequent, Bradford explained. When these arguments reach the public sphere, they appear adversarial, making it challenging for policymakers to know whose numbers and knowledge to use, undermining strong evidence for how soil carbon impacts other environmental and agricultural outcomes.
“The benefits of soil carbon go beyond climate mitigation,” said Stephen Wood, soil scientist at The Nature Conservancy and associate research scientist at Yale. “Rebuilding soil carbon on agricultural lands is important to building sustainable and resilient agricultural systems. We need to make sure that the debate about how to mitigate climate change doesn’t undermine efforts to build soil health for the many other things we care about, like agricultural productivity and water quality.”
The comment was borne from a Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) working group on Managing Soil Carbon, led by Wood. SNAPP is a collaboration between the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, The Nature Conservancy, and Wildlife Conservation Society. The group has brought together conservationists, scientists, and policymakers to discuss a specific issue – in this case, the potential benefits of soil carbon.
In the comment, the team lays out both the agreements in soil science and the uncertainties, while also outlining plans for how the issue can move forward. They argue that “action can happen despite unanswered scientific questions,” and that by raising awareness of the latest scientific soil knowledge, they are helping scientists, policymakers, and practitioners “navigate ongoing debates about soil carbon and help build a climate-adaptive agriculture.”
“Agricultural soil carbon is foundational to soil health, fertility and climate resilience. There’s no doubt about that,” said Joseph Rudek, co-author and lead senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “This comment distills an array of scientific perspectives, and should be taken as strong support for immediate and extensive action to improve soil health.”
“We’re not trying to come out on either side of the mitigation debate,” explained Bradford. “All we’re saying is that on the soil health side, let’s not undermine these international, national, sub-national level initiatives. We’re trying to build out a solution space centered on the protection and restoration of one of our most important natural resources.”
Boost in Crop-Breeding Research Needed Now: Study
Scientists say improved and innovative crop breeding will be needed to assure an adequate food supply in the face of a changing climate.
In a report published this month in the journal Nature, a team of researchers argues that the current trajectory for crop yields is insufficient to nourish the world’s population by 2050, and warns that the current timeline for increasing the resilience and sustainability of crops is too long.
“Greater and more consistent crop production must be achieved against a backdrop of climatic stress that limits yields, owing to shifts in pests and pathogens, precipitation, heat-waves and other weather extremes,” the authors say.
The paper considers the potential of plant sciences to address challenges in agriculture that have come about since the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, which enabled a steep increase in the yields of major staple grain crops (wheat, corn and rice) to address the caloric needs of an increasing global population. The improvements made more than a half-century ago were accomplished through elite variety breeding, hybrid crop development, fertilizer application and advances in management through substantial public investment.
To meet today’s challenges, scientists must “explore emerging strategies for enhancing sustainable crop production and resilience in a changing climate,” the report states. “Accelerated crop improvement must leverage naturally evolved traits and transformative engineering driven by mechanistic understanding, to yield the resilient production systems that are needed to ensure future harvests.”
The report’s authors, who include Lisa Ainsworth, a prominent climate scientist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the winner of the 2019 National Academy of Science Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences, underscore the significance of the work to be done, saying that addressing yield loss due to climate change and other factors “is not unlike the development of vaccines and innovations in modern medicine.
“The integration of genetic resources and transformative technologies, from genome editing to synthetic biology, are necessary to capture traits that increase global food security and reduce the effects of agriculture on the environment.”
The researchers say modern scientists must not repeat the failure of their predecessors during earlier efforts at genetic modification to enhance production. They noted that plant biotechnologists lacked “effective engagement with environmentalists, farmers and consumers on questions of health and safety, despite strict governmental procedures for the validation, release and monitoring of genetically modified crops.”
The researchers cite as “critical” the need for scientists to ensure that a “specific method used for crop improvement does not stymie the implementation of safe and effective solutions. Non-politicized regulatory systems are essential for scientific advances to scale to farmers within the time-frame needed.”
The study lays out the areas of immediate focus for research needed to deal with oncoming challenges include the development of protections from new and re-emerging diseases; resilience to stress induced by non-living chemical and physical parts of the environment; and the optimization of photosynthesis, among others.
“The agriculture of the next decades must satisfy demands for nutritious food, fiber and animal feed in a highly variable climate, and also mitigate the effects of agriculture on the environment,” the study asserts. Researchers must possess a deeper understanding of “genetic variation and the molecular, cellular and developmental pathways by which plants dynamically respond to and interact with their environment and pathogens.”
New crop varieties must maintain growth, efficient use of nutrient use and fitness, the paper asserts, adding that they “ideally will have genetic combinations that alleviate losses from the multiple environmental and pest constraints that are encountered during the crop lifecycle in a farmer’s field.”
Plants and Fungi Together Could Slow Climate Change
A new global assessment shows that human impacts have greatly reduced plant-fungus symbioses, which play a key role in sequestering carbon in soils. Restoring these ecosystems could be one strategy to slow climate change.
CREDIT – Andreas Altenburger – Dreamstime.com
Human-induced transformations of Earth’s ecosystems have strongly affected distribution patterns of plant-fungus symbioses known as mycorrhiza. These changes have greatly reduced vegetation featuring a particular variety of mycorrhiza – ectomycorrhiza – a type of plant-fungal symbiosis crucially important for soil carbon storage. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, shows that loss of ectomycorrhizal symbiosis has reduced the ability of these ecosystems to sequester carbon in soils.
Most plant species form symbioses with various fungi, in which fungi provide plants with nutrients, while the plants provide carbon to the fungi. Previous research has shown that these relationships increase the potential of vegetation to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and sequester it in soils. However, because of the complexity of these relationships and multiple species involved, it has been difficult to estimate the global impact of such symbioses.
The study is the first to provide a global accounting of the distribution of mycorrhizal vegetation across the planet along with estimates of their contribution to terrestrial carbon stocks. Even with the loss of mycorrhizal symbioses, the study finds, that ecosystems encompassing mycorrhizal vegetation store on the order of 350 gigatons of carbon globally, compared to just 29 gigatons stored in non-mycorrhizal vegetation.
“Human activities such as agricultural practices have altered 50-75 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems, transforming natural areas with previously strong carbon sequestering mycorrhizal plant-associations to much weaker relationships,” says IIASA researcher Ian McCallum, a study co-author. “By altering the plants that grow across much of the Earth’s surface from those with strong soil carbon storage to weak carbon storage we have potentially further contributed to increased atmospheric CO2.”
The study identifies a potential mechanism that could be used to decrease atmospheric CO2 via enhanced soil carbon storage. Restoring native vegetation that forms ectomycorrhizal symbiosis with soil fungi, especially in abandoned agricultural and barren land, the authors say, could help alleviate anthropogenic soil carbon losses and ameliorate increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases.
“Among the pathways available to mankind to reach the atmospheric CO2 removal goals, accumulation of carbon in vegetation and soil is one promising path, in which mycorrhizal symbiosis plays a very important role” says lead author Nadejda Soudzilovskaia, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “Our new detailed maps of mycorrhizal distribution across the globe will allow for conscious policy design towards decreasing atmospheric CO2 by sequestering carbon in soil and plants.”
Artificial Intelligence, Farmer Knowledge Boost Smallholder Corn Yield
Data-driven agriculture can boost smallholder production threatened by variable weather and climate change, but a study confirms that scientists need to work with farmers, not just their governments, to achieve the best results in a time of weather variability. The study affirms a basic tenet within NACSAA’s guiding principles for the development of climate change policies: agriculture producers must be a major player in those considerations.
For the study, researchers tapped the experience of farmers in Colombia’s northern corn-growing region of Córdoba who had seen considerable variability: too much rain one year, a searing drought another. In collaboration with the government, a national growers association and researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), they helped build and implement big-data tools that successfully increased yields in spite of the challenges presented by extreme weather and climate change.
The study, published in Global Food Security, shows how machine learning – when applied to data from multiple sources, including, critically, farmers – can help make farming more efficient and productive even amid climate uncertainty. This can best be achieved when the scientists, producers and farmers organizations collaborate and work together, the researchers conclude.
The authors say that if one farmer provides data to a researcher, it is almost impossible to gain many insights into how to improve management. On the other hand, if many farmers, each with distinct experiences, growing conditions and management practices, provide information, with the help of machine learning it is possible to deduce where and when specific management practices will work.
Collected over a period of almost 10 years, lead author Daniel Jimenez and colleagues analyzed the data and verified developed guidelines for increased production. Some farmers immediately followed the guidelines, while others waited until the recommendations were verified in field trials. Farmers that adopted the full suite of machine-generated guidelines saw their yields increase more than 40 percent, an excellent yield for rain-fed corn in the region.
Also, the guidelines substantially reduced fertilizer costs and provided advice on how to reduce risks related to variation in weather patterns, including reducing the negative impacts of heavy rainfall.
Year by year, corn yields vary by as much as 39 percent due to variation in weather patterns. Small farmers in the past had to rely on their own knowledge of their crops and accept blanket recommendations often developed by researchers far removed from their own milieu.
Now, by combining farmers’ knowledge and analysis of what happens on their farms with modern data sources of information on weather, soils and crop response to variables, farmers can better shield their crops against climate variability. They can also improve yields and reliably keep them higher.
The study highlighted management as the main cause of low yields. The research shows that by working with farmers and improving crop management, it is possible to increase corn production and food security and improve livelihoods, without large investments.
Researchers said that given the guidelines were based on the information provided by the farmers themselves, producers felt they were part of the whole process and adopted the improved practices with confidence.
Corteva to Create Challenge Grants to Advance Climate Positive Agriculture
Corteva Agriscience, a major American agricultural chemical and seed company, has made a $500,000 commitment to catalyze a movement toward climate-positive agriculture. The grant program will be launched next year and reward efforts that offset carbon emissions and protect the environment while sustaining farms and farmers.
The Corteva Agriscience Climate Positive Challenge grants will provide financial rewards to farmers who are already advancing innovative climate-positive practices for collaborating with local environmental groups, universities, growers or others in the ag value chain to help scale the effort beyond their own acres.
“We understand the challenges farmers around the world are facing as it relates to trade, policy and weather challenges,” said CEO James C. Collins Jr. “These reasons are our primary drivers for announcing this now – to provide incentives for those farmers that have a keen eye for scaling their practices.”
Collins first introduced the concept of climate-positive agriculture at last year’s World Food Prize. Since then, the company had meetings with farmers and organizations representing every facet of agriculture and food production on the forefront of advancing agricultural sustainability. The discussions explored what it would take to create a carbon-negative and climate-positive agriculture industry around the world.
“Clearly, there’s a thirst and passion to collaborate and coordinate so that we can best tackle what is undoubtedly the biggest challenge of our lifetimes,” said Collins.
Corteva is already working toward creating market-driven financial incentives for farmers. The company’s subsidiary, Granular, is collaborating with Nori, the world’s leading carbon dioxide removal marketplace. The site connects buyers of carbon offsets with farmers who are applying sustainable farming practices and provides them with a viable carbon credit market that will generate revenue.
“This is just the beginning,” said Collins. “There’s so much more we – and all of us working together – can do.”
New Report: Accelerating Global Agricultural Productivity Growth Is Critical
A report recently released by Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences shows agricultural productivity growth – increasing output of crops and livestock with existing or fewer inputs – is growing globally at an average annual rate of 1.63 percent.
However, the 2019 Global Agricultural Productivity Report, “Productivity Growth for Sustainable Diets, and More,” provides an index showing agricultural productivity needs to increase at an average annual rate of 1.73 percent to sustainably produce food, feed, fiber, and bioenergy for 10 billion people in 2050.
The report shows productivity growth is strong in China and South Asia, but it is slowing in the agricultural powerhouses of North America, Europe and Latin America.
The report calls attention to the alarmingly low levels of productivity growth in low-income countries, where there also are high rates of food insecurity, malnutrition, and rural poverty.
Agricultural productivity growth in low-income countries is rising at an average annual rate of just 1 percent. The UN Sustainable Development Goals call for doubling the productivity of the lowest-income farmers by 2030.
The GAP Report, which was released last month at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, IA, calls for a strong focus on countries with high rates of population growth, persistent low levels of agricultural productivity, and significant shifts in consumption patterns – the primary drivers of unsustainable agricultural practices, such as converting forests to crop and rangeland.
“These productivity gaps, if they persist, will have serious ramifications for environmental sustainability, the economic vitality of the agriculture sector, and the prospects for reducing poverty, malnutrition, and obesity,” said Ann Steensland, author of the 2019 GAP Report and coordinator of the GAP Report Initiative at Virginia Tech.
The 2019 GAP Report examines the pivotal role of agricultural productivity in achieving global goals for environmental sustainability, economic development and improved nutrition.
“Decades of research and experience tell us that by accelerating productivity growth, it is possible to improve environmental sustainability, while ensuring that consumers have access to the foods they need and want,” said Tom Thompson, associate dean and director of global programs for the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Productivity growth is generated by such innovations as precision agriculture technology and improved seeds and best practices for nutrient management and animal health. Attention to ecosystem services, such as pollination and erosion prevention, can increase and sustain productivity gains over time.
The GAP Report looks at the powerful combination of agricultural technology, best farm management practices, and attention to ecosystem services in supporting productivity growth, sustainability, and resilience.
Historically, productivity growth has been strongest in high-income countries, such as the U.S, with significant environmental benefits.
Due to widespread adoption of improved agricultural technologies and best farm management practices, especially in high-income countries, global agricultural output has increased by 60 percent, while global cropland has increased by just 5 percent during the past 40 years.
Between 1980 and 2015, productivity gains led to a 41 percent decrease in the amount of land used in U.S. corn production, irrigation water use declined 46 percent, greenhouse gas emissions declined 31 percent, and soil erosion declined (tons of soil loss per acre) by 58 percent.
The GAP Report is supported by the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and its supporting partners: Bayer Crop Science, Corteva Agriscience, John Deere, The Mosaic Company, and Smithfield Foods.
The GAP Report’s consultative partners are ACDI/VOCA, Congressional Hunger Center, Farm Foundation, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, HarvestPlus, Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, International Potato Center, The Nature Conservancy, New Markets Lab, Purdue Center for Global Food Security, Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation, Tanager, and the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute.
Stalled Weather Patterns Will Get Bigger Due to Climate Change
Climate change will increase the size of stalled high-pressure weather systems called “blocking events” that have already produced some of the 21st century’s deadliest heat waves, according to a Rice University study.
Atmospheric blocking events are middle-latitude, high-pressure systems that stay in place for days or even weeks. Depending upon when and where they develop, blocking events can cause droughts or downpours and heat waves or cold spells. Blocking events caused deadly heat waves in France in 2003 and in Russia in 2010.
Using data from two sets of comprehensive climate model simulations, Rice fluid dynamicists Ebrahim Nabizadeh and Pedram Hassanzadeh, and colleagues found that the area of blocking events in the northern hemisphere will increase by as much as 17 percent due to anthropogenic climate change. The study, which is available online from Geophysical Research Letters, was co-authored by Da Yang of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Davis, and Elizabeth Barnes of Colorado State University.
Hassanzadeh, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, uses computational, mathematical and statistical models to study atmospheric flows related to a broad range of problems from extreme weather events to wind energy. He said researchers have increasingly been interested in learning how climate change might affect blocking events, but most studies have focused on whether blocking events will become more frequent as the atmosphere warms because of greenhouse gas emissions.
[Stalled weather pattern art here]
[With Credit…Rice University fluid dynamicists have found a scaling law, a mathematical formula that relates the size of blocking events to the width, latitude and strength of the jet stream, all of which are well-studied and measured. (Image courtesy of P. Hassanzadeh/Rice University)]
“Studies in the past have looked at whether you get more or less blocking events with climate change,” he said. “The question nobody had asked is whether the size of these events will change or not. And the size is very important because the blocking events are more impactful when they are larger. For example, if the high-pressure system becomes bigger, you are going to get bigger heat waves that affect more people, and you are likely going to get stronger heat waves.”
Nabizadeh, a mechanical engineering graduate student in Rice’s Brown School of Engineering, set out to answer the question two years ago. Using a hierarchical modeling approach, he began with experiments on a model of atmospheric turbulence that’s far simpler than the real atmosphere.
The simple model, which captures the fundamental dynamics of blocking events, allowed Nabizadeh to do a great deal of exploration. Making slight changes in one parameter or another, he ran thousands of simulations. Then the data was analyzed using a powerful dimensional analysis technique called the Buckingham-Pi theorem, which is often used in designing large and complex engineering systems that involve fluid flows.
The goal was finding a scaling law, a mathematical formula that describes the size of a blocking event using variables that climate scientists already study and understand. Nabizadeh started with scaling laws that have been developed to predict the size of day-to-day weather patterns, but he found that none of the variables were predictive for blocking events.
His persistence eventually paid off with a simple formula that relates the area of blocking events to the width, latitude and strength of the jet stream, all of which are well-studied and measured.
The team also compared the simple-model results with the output of increasingly complex models of the Earth’s weather and climate. Nabizadeh said the scaling law predicted changes in the size of future winter blocking events in comprehensive climate model simulations with remarkable accuracy.
“It performs better for winter events than summer events for reasons we don’t yet understand,” Nabizadeh said. “Our results suggest future studies should focus on better understanding summer blocks and also how larger blocking events might affect the size, magnitude and persistence of extreme-weather events like heat waves.”
The research was supported by NASA, the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Computing resources were provided by the NSF-supported XSEDE project and Rice’s Center for Research Computing in partnership with Rice’s Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology.