Regulatory Hurdles Hurting Success of Advanced Biofuels

Joanna Schroeder

Biobutanol may be the fuel to help achieve the mandates set out in the Renewable Fuel Standard. This according to new research from the University of Illinois. The report, “Making Regulatory Innovation Keep Pace with Technological Innovation,” says that regulatory hurdles “abound” for the successful commercialization of advanced biofuels and argues regulatory innovations are needed to keep pace with technological innovation. The research was conducted through the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute and will be published in the upcoming issue of Wisconsin Law Review.

The research was conducted by University of Illinois law professor Jay P. Kesan along with regulatory associate Timothy A. Slating with the University of Illinois Energy Biosciences Institute. Kesan said, “Getting regulatory approval for new biofuels is currently a time-consuming and costly process. By removing some of the uncertainty and some of the expense without compromising on the regulatory concerns, you are also removing some of the disincentives to entering the biofuel market, where we need more competition.”

The paper promotes biobutanol as a good driver for advanced biofuels. The reasons are threefold: it is compatible with existing vehicles engines, it is compatible with existing fuel distribution infrastructure and has a higher energy content than ethanol. A car fueled with biobutanol could drive roughly 30 percent farther than if fueled with the same amount of ethanol.

“Biobutanol is a really promising biofuel, and has the potential to further the policy decisions that have already been made by Congress,” Kesan continued. This is not a hypothetical situation. We have companies currently building the capacity to produce biobutanol.” The three leading companies in this area are Butamax, Cobalt and Gevo, who are all in some phase of moving from demonstration phases to commercialization.

The research reviewed two major policies: the Renewable Fuel Standard and the Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act is actually the regulatory framework for moving new fuels and fuel additives to approval.

“Since biobutanol can help us meet the Renewable Fuel Standard’s mandates much more quickly and effectively, it makes good economic and policy sense to line up our regulatory processes to facilitate its commercialization,” said Kesan who says it is not clear if the U.S. can meet all of the renewable fuel mandates and biobutanol may be a way to do this.

Kesan and Slating note that under existing regulations, biobutanol can lawfully be blended with gasoline in a concentration of roughly 11.5 to 12.5 percent by volume, depending on the density of the finished fuel. They also explained that regulations provide a mechanism whereby fuel manufacturers can seek a fuel waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow higher blending limits than current regulations allow but this is an onerous process.

For example, while it may be legal to blend 16-17 percent biobutanol with gasoline based on pre-existing waivers granted in the 1980s, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding whether the EPA would allow this.

“One of the things we’re suggesting is to remove this uncertainty by updating the regulations to allow higher blending limits for biobutanol,” said Slating. “The interesting thing here is that the EPA could actually do this on their own.”

The report concludes that some of the regulatory hurdles could be overcome by a combination of creating new regulations, revamping existing regulations, and/or accelerating the regulatory approval process.

advanced biofuels, biobutanol, Research