EPA seeks to improve its review of RFS pathway petitions

In a blog post several months ago, I commented on a recently-published study by two researchers at the University of Illinois Energy Biosciences Institute, James S.N. McCubbins and A. Bryan Endres, regarding the length of time the Environmental Protection Agency is taking to review petitions submitted from industry for approval of new fuel pathways under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) (I have described the RFS pathway petition process in an earlier blog post.) The authors’ analysis of data from EPA’s website confirmed what many in the industry have been saying for some time — that EPA has a large backlog of pathway petitions, which may potentially be hindering the growth of the renewable fuels industry. EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality was clearly listening, as shown in an announcement posted on their website earlier this month.

In a Program Announcement dated March 2014, EPA announced that it was initiating activities to improve the petition process for new fuel pathways under the RFS.  EPA said that it found “that improvements should be made to the petition process to enable more timely and efficient decision-making” in the RFS program. There are several components of this effort, including:

  • Undertaking what EPA calls a “lean government exercise” to improve their internal review process and to make it more transparent.
  • Developing improve guidance for companies seeking to prepare and file petitions, possibly including development of step-by-step instructions and application templates.
  • Trying to “automate” the more routine pathway petitions – those involving previously-approved feedstocks and well-understood production processes, but which (apparently) differed sufficiently from approved pathways as to require submission of a new pathway petition.

EPA expects this process to take about 6 months, and they have asked that companies considering the filing of new pathway petitions to consider deferring submittal until after EPA has completed its internal reviews. EPA will continue to review already-submitted petitions during the 6-month period, but will attempt to prioritize their reviews based on the importance of the proposed pathways to the most important goals of the RFS (e.g. contributing to the cellulosic biofuel mandate), and to the closeness of the pathway to commercialization.

EPA is also seeking stakeholder input of ideas for improving the petition process. Any submissions can be sent to support@epamts-support.com, with the phrase “Petition Process Input” in the subject line.

I think most industry observers will find this to be a positive development. There is no doubt that there is a substantial backlog of petitions – at this writing, there are 36 pending petitions listed on EPA’s website.  Although EPA staff has been encouraging companies to submit petitions as early as possible to get into the queue, no doubt many of these petitions represent pathways that are very close to commercialization, but are requests that have been pending for a long time. This is a state of affairs that could place some companies in a real hardship, to be close to commercialization but to still be uncertain that the process will be approved and therefore qualified to issue RINs.

Furthermore, I know from personal experience that there has been a lack of sufficient guidance from the Agency (particularly on its website), telling applicants how best to prepare petitions. In my consultations with Agency staff, I’ve found them to be very helpful, and they’ve indicated that, as long as the most important information, such as mass and energy balances, are submitted, the actual narrative content of the petitions was not that critical. This advice was useful, and it turned out (in my case) not to be too difficult to draft a petition working from the bare-bones requirements of the regulations. However, it is also likely that, due to the vague guidance, EPA found that many petitions lacked the needed information, while others contained a great deal of extraneous information that EPA staff had to wade through to get to the “good stuff”.

So, overall, I think this is a positive development, and I look forward to seeing the result of EPA’s hard work during this 6-month period.

D. Glass Associates, Inc. is a consulting company specializing in government and regulatory affairs support for renewable fuels and industrial biotechnology. David Glass, Ph.D. is a veteran of over thirty years in the biotechnology industry, with expertise in industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, U.S. and international renewable fuels regulation, patents, technology licensing, and market and technology assessments. More information on D. Glass Associates’ regulatory affairs consulting capabilities, and copies of some of Dr. Glass’s prior presentations on biofuels and biotechnology regulation, are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99 and at www.dglassassociates.com. The views expressed in this blog are those of Dr. Glass and D. Glass Associates and do not represent the views of any other organization with which Dr. Glass is affiliated. Please visit our other blog, Biofuel Policy Watch.