Industry slams lack of transparency in EU approval process for ‘sustainable biofuels’

The consortium report outlines biofuels feedstocks that could potentially be added to the EU's approved feedstock list. [Rattiya Thongdumhyu / Shutterstock.com]

The consortium advising the European Commission on suitable sources for the production of sustainable biofuels has come under fire for failing to disclose the criteria used to evaluate feedstocks to industry.

The European Commission has asked the consortium to prepare a report to guide lawmakers on potential feedstocks to add to the EU’s approved list for advanced and waste-based biofuels production.

The report, which was presented on Wednesday (26 January) at the Fuels of the Future conference, evaluated biofuels feedstocks that could potentially be added to the approved feedstock list – Annex 9 of the Renewable Energy Directive – and identified fraud risks for existing and potential Annex 9 feedstocks.

But industry sources expressed dismay that they were not informed of how the sustainability and fraud-risk of feedstocks would be judged, arguing that a negative perception of certain feedstocks will hamper new investments and make it more difficult to reach renewable energy targets.

Six consultancies or research organisations were involved in the production of the report: E4tech, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), Cerulogy, Wageningen University & Research, Navigant, and SCS Global Services.

E4tech, Cerulogy, and Navigant are private consultancy firms with their head offices in the UK, while SCS Global Services is headquartered in the United States. Navigant is also part of US consultancy firm Guidehouse.

Critics additionally raised questions over the neutrality of the consultants tasked with producing the report, given some organisation’s links to NGOs that are openly critical of biofuels as an energy source.

“The really sensitive issue is that the Commission opted for a consortium of consultants to do this revision of which several members have vested interests and cannot be seen as impartial to do this work,” said a source with knowledge of the process, who spoke to EURACTIV on condition of anonymity.

“How is it possible that E4tech, Cerulogy, and ICCT are given this important work and why did the Commission not ask universities to do this instead? It is an incestuous lot,” said the source.

The ICCT is a US-based non-profit organisation, which became famous in 2015 for breaking the dieselgate scandal. It has produced reports critical of crop-based biofuels in the past, highlighting issues with land-use change and long-term sustainability.

However, ICCT emphatically rejected claims that the organisation was not an impartial arbiter. “ICCT always follows the science in a robust, evidence-based approach, and does not lobby policymakers on biofuels or any other issues,” Stephanie Searle, ICCT’s fuels director, told EURACTIV.

In response to industry allegations, E4tech, the project consortium lead, said that an extensive consultation with industry was conducted at the beginning of the report process, which included requesting evidence and documentation from stakeholders to aid with the analysis of each feedstock.

“This was an appropriate way to engage stakeholders in an independent study and in line with the contractual requirements of the European Commission,” said Sébastien Haye, sustainability and resources lead with E4tech.

Haye also pointed out the remit of the report is to provide an independent and evidence-basis analysis of whether biomass feedstocks are likely to meet the EU’s eligibility criteria for inclusion in Annex 9.

“It is not making any recommendations to the European Commission as to which feedstocks should or should not be added to Annex 9. As such, stakeholders have the opportunity to discuss directly with the European Commission as part of the Delegated Act process,” he told EURACTIV.

E4tech is willing to discuss any aspect of the analysis following its publication by the European Commission, Haye added.

In private messages sent to EURACTIV, sources expressed dissatisfaction with the consultation of industry, indicating they took issue with requests to provide sensitive commercial information as they perceived the consortium to include ‘think-tank’ consultants with ties to NGOs that lobby against biofuels.

Expanding biofuels feedstocks

A total of 30 feedstocks were assessed in the report, with seven marked as presenting “no concern”, making them likely candidates for Annex 9 inclusion.

Nine feedstocks raised “significant concerns” making them unlikely to be accepted by lawmakers, while the remaining 14 were marked as having “some concerns”, meaning the level of risk may be acceptable if mitigation measures are put in place.

In recent years, the European Commission has clamped down on crop-based biofuel production due to environmental concerns, setting a 7% limit on the quantity of crop-based biofuels used in the transport sector.

Approved feedstocks for advanced and waste biofuels, made from residues and waste materials, are listed in Annex 9 of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive. This annex is separated into Parts A and B.

Under EU rules, feedstocks can be added to this list but may not be taken away. Those can be added by the Commission through a “delegated act” – a legislative tool allowing the EU executive to fast-track technical updates to legislation.

Part A feedstocks comprise agricultural, forestry, and waste residues, such as straw, bark and leaves, and animal manure.

Part B currently has two entries: used-cooking oil and animal tallow – both feedstocks which can be processed into fuel using established or “mature” technology. Part B feedstocks are capped at 1.7% of transport energy targets (however, countries may petition the Commission to raise this limit as it is a ‘soft cap’).

Only six of the feedstocks were evaluated as eligible for processing through advanced technologies. This means that the remaining feedstocks would be eligible for Part B only, making them subject to a cap under renewable energy directive rules.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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