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Conservationists take EPA to court over renewable fuel standard

The agency is accused of ignoring the destructive impact of high biofuel requirements on the habitats of endangered species.

(CN) — The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in the D.C. Circuit on Wednesday challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s fuel volume requirements for corn ethanol and other biofuels.

Created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the EPA's renewable fuel standard requires a certain amount of biofuel to be to be mixed with traditional transportation fuel such as diesel and gasoline as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The EPA wrote in its updated 2022 rules that "increasing the domestic production and use of renewable fuels will also create good- paying American jobs; support our rural economies, American agriculture, and manufacturing; and reduce the impacts of climate change."

Last month, the EPA set the 2022 required minimum volume for transportation sector use at roughly 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol and 5.63 billion gallons of advanced biofuels.

Although the use of renewable and biofuels is intended to help to reduce emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet, conservationists claim they can actually have adverse effects on climate change and the environment, including vital habitats for endangered species.

Wednesday's lawsuit accuses the EPA of failing to fully assess how endangered species will be impacted by the increase in land conversion as well as pesticide and fertilizer use needed to meet the higher biofuel targets.

The D.C. Circuit has already ruled twice in prior lawsuits that the agency failed to properly assess renewable fuel standard impacts on endangered species when setting annual fuel volume targets.

Despite the EPA's recognition of the issue and claims that it has begun a consultation process to address it, the agency has never established a formal commitment or timeline to do so, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

"“The ever-increasing amounts of corn grown to burn as fuel only exacerbate dead zones in the ocean, worsen water pollution, and drive endangered species closer to extinction,” said Brett Hartl, the group's government affairs director. “The renewable fuel program is a colossal boondoggle that gobbles up millions of acres of land. It’s a false solution to the climate crisis, delaying the urgent need to transition to electric vehicles.”

The center also warns that the increased production of biofuels diminishes global food security by decreasing the amount of crops grown for food production and also causing their prices to inflate as a result.

In its latest update, the EPA wrote that some of its analyses support lower volumes of renewable fuel.

"As with soy biodiesel, increased corn production in the U.S. could result in greater conversion of wetlands, adverse impacts on ecosystems and wildlife habitat, adverse impacts on water quality and supply, and increased prices for agricultural commodities and food prices," the agency acknowledged.

In 2018, the EPA concluded that 4 million to 7.8 million acres of land had been converted to growing corn and soybeans since the enactment of the renewable fuel program in 2006 and that the rate of land conversion was higher in areas closer to ethanol biorefineries.

According to environmentalists, this continuous conversion of forests and grasslands has detrimental affects on vital habitats for many pollinators, birds, and the plant species upon which they rely and because these crops are grown for fuel, there are fewer restrictions on the use of pesticides and fertilizers, which run off into nearby streams and rivers.

This additional pollution harms endangered species like the pallid sturgeon in the Mississippi River and worsens ocean dead zones, hurting endangered sea turtles and other marine animals. There are currently over 1,300 endangered or threatened species in the U.S. that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

According to a United Nations report, agricultural land use change is a primary driver of global biodiversity loss.

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