Driving Under the Influence: Recent Legal Developments in Cellulosic Ethanol Industry

Ke M. Huang, MJLST Lead Articles Editor

As a second-year law student, I met an energy law attorney who told me that sometimes his job felt like mediating between two parents. Two parents butting heads.

The more recent legal developments in the cellulosic ethanol industry since the publication of my student note in the Volume 15, Issue 2 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology echo the words of the attorney I met. In the note–published in Spring 2014 and entitled A Spoonful of Sugarcane Ethanol–I argue that the U.S. should enact tax benefits to spur cellulosic ethanol based on existing Brazilian tax benefits for sugarcane ethanol. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is a fuel fermented from renewable resources. In the case of cellulosic ethanol, the resource is vegetative and yard waste; in the case of sugarcane ethanol, the resource is sugarcane juice.

Unlike the note, which focuses on tax benefits, the recent developments in the cellulosic ethanol industry center on blending mandates, both in the U.S. and Brazil. Under these mandates, motor fuel–which contains mostly gasoline–must be blended with a certain amount of ethanol. The U.S. motor fuel mandate is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). RFS, which generally requires the petroleum industry to blend in motor fuel specific amounts for cellulosic ethanol, was already subject to litigation in American Petroleum Institute v. EPA, 706 F.3d 474 (D.C. Cir. 2013). However, the concerned industries of that case, primarily the petroleum industry and the cellulosic ethanol industry, continue to disagree. Broadly speaking, as further elaborated in this Bloomberg BNA blog entry, the petroleum industry takes the position that the RFS is unworkable. To much the vexation of the cellulosic ethanol industry. What makes the recent development more interesting is that, since early 2014, the cellulosic ethanol production seemed to have increased. Extending the metaphor of fighting parents, it is as if the ethanol parent continues to grasp the motor fuel teen, a teen that has grown bulkier in size, when the petroleum parent is ready to send the teen off to college.

In Brazil, a similar “family tale” ensues. In late 2014, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed the legislation to increase Brazil’s blending percentage of ethanol from 25% to 27.5%. Still, the semi-public petroleum producer Petrobras expressed concern that, before the change in the mandate can be put in effect, more study is needed. These articles further explain these events (1)(2). As such, in this “family,” the parents are at a deadlock.

On a more serious tone, as I reread my student note, I would like to make two corrections. I apologize for the misspelling of Ms. Ruilin Li’s name on page 1117, and for the missing infra notations on page 11141 (notes 218 to 221).