Does Obama's Backtrack on Biofuels Undermine His Climate Change Message in Paris?

Despite the terrorist attacks in Paris, French officials have announced the United Nations Convention on Climate Change will proceed as planned on November 30. The conference is expected to produce a blueprint to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the main cause of global warming.
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Despite the terrorist attacks in Paris, French officials have announced the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, also taking place in Paris, will proceed as planned on November 30. The conference is expected to produce a blueprint to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the main cause of global warming.

President Barack Obama will be among the nearly 120 world leaders who are expected to attend. Over the last year, Obama has made global warming one of his legacy issues. "Climate Change is no longer some far-off problem," he said in August on a trip to Alaska, choreographed to highlight his concern for environmental issues. "It is happening now. We are not acting fast enough."

As he lectures world leaders in Paris on the urgent need to address climate change, Obama will no doubt showcase his cancellation of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would have transported 800,000 barrels of oil a day from the oil fields of Alberta to the refineries in Texas -- an unqualified victory for the environmental movement. What he will likely not reveal is that, while taking steps to combat global warming, his administration is actually in the process of gutting the Renewable Fuels Standard. Created by the U.S. Congress in 2005 and enhanced in 2007, the law required oil companies to blend biofuels -- mostly ethanol -- into the national transportation fuel supply. From a starting point of nine billion gallons in 2008, the amount would increase yearly until it reached a target goal of 36 billion gallons by 2022.

When George W. Bush signed the bill, he said he supported the bipartisan legislation because it would decrease America's dependence on foreign oil, an issue that had become vital following the attacks of September 11, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He singled out ethanol as the main biofuel to which industry could turn, calling it "good for the environment."

The RFS did what it was supposed to do. Within only a handful of years, data from the Energy Information Administration showed that ethanol made up more than 10 percent of the gasoline used in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Because of this success, the renewable fuel industry was shocked when, eighteen months ago, the Obama Administration announced plans to weaken the regulation. Up until then, and dating back to his years in the U.S. Senate, Obama had been a supporter of biofuels and the RFS. Now the EPA was threatening to reduce the amount of RFS-mandated biofuel by 15 to 20 percent a year.

The Obama Administration has never given a definitive reason why it reversed course on biofuels, a position made clear in May 2015 when it officially announced the proposed reduced regulations. However, Reuters has reported that in 2013 Vice President Joe Biden offered to weaken the RFS as a response to a request from Congressman Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, whose district includes an oil refinery that was near bankruptcy due to its struggle to comply with the RFS. Political observers believe Biden, his eye on a future presidential run, was hoping to win favor with the union representing the hundreds of workers who would have lost their jobs if the refinery closed.

Or perhaps there was another reason. Once the RFS was weakened, key advisors to the president left the administration to accept positions affiliated with the oil industry, which has long opposed biofuels. James Stock, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, Heather Zichal, an advisor to the president on energy and climate change, and Bob Perciasepe, a deputy administrator at the EPA -- all involved in the RFS review process -- left the White House for lucrative positions with ties to oil companies.

The date on which the proposed new RFS regulations must be finalized is November 30 -- the very time Obama is traveling to Paris to lobby world leaders on the need to combat climate change. One way to do that, of course, is to reduce oil consumption. It will be interesting to note if Obama discloses that his administration is gutting the RFS, the one piece of legislation from the past decade that has produced proven results in reducing oil consumption.

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