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The ocean and biofuels: 2 environmental regulatory updates you should know about

The highly anticipated High Seas Treaty was officially adopted by all United Nations member states, while the Biden administration officially published its new mandates for incorporating biofuels into the U.S. energy mix over the next three years.

A train in Lena, Illinois waiting to be loaded with ethanol.

Train tanker cars waiting to be loaded at the Adkins Energy ethanol plant in Lena Illinois (May 2020). Image via Shutterstock/D Vande

It was such a whirlwind week in policy news, we’re featuring two items that should factor into your sustainability team’s decision-making in the months ahead.

1. More protection for more of the ocean

The first development, the formal adoption of the High Seas Treaty by United Nations member states after decades of bickering, sets up a mechanism for protecting marine areas that lie outside of the jurisdiction of national governments. That’s anything that lies more than 200 nautical miles offshore of a given country — basically two-thirds of the ocean.

Aside from affecting more traditional industries, such as maritime shipping and fisheries, there are two places where this will really matter for those working on climate plans. First, it could affect how we use the ocean for carbon sequestration, and limit the locations where this will be allowed. It’s also sure to set up even more fights over deep sea mining, a practice criticized for its potential to disturb the largely unexplored and unmapped ocean floor.   

2. Bigger quotas for biofuels

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted new mandates for biofuels that can help reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels — and it seems very few people are happy about them. 

What you should know: The rules increase the amount that must be blended into the U.S. fuel mix over the next three years, from 21.54 billion gallons in 2023 to 22.33 billion gallons in 2025. One main goal is to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Among the things covered: Cellulosic biofuels (made from grasses, wood, algae or other plants), biodiesel (made from vegetable oils and animal fats) and ethanol. Yes, sustainable aviation fuel falls into the mix.  

The total amounts required under the new policy are higher than previous versions, but biofuels industry groups say they don’t go far enough. In particular, some are upset by the exclusion of a plan to create credits for electric vehicle charging stations powered by gas created from renewable sources, such as methane sourced at landfills or ranches. "Viewed in conjunction with the agency’s recent proposed tailpipe emissions standards, it is now clear that the Biden Administration is dangerously overestimating the speed at which the country will be able to transition to zero emissions vehicles, and at the same time underestimating the country’s desire to consume lower-carbon liquid fuels in the meantime," wrote NATSO, which represents truck stops and travel plazas, in a statement.

The bottom line: State-level low-carbon fuels programs such as the ones in California and Oregon, which give credits to companies seeking to decarbonize transportation, are still vitally important. Watch for more to emerge. Also, check out more news, with a specific twist on sustainable aviation fuels, in our colleague AJ Artis’ article.

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