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Biofuels were supposed to be the future. Why is Chevron letting its plants go idle?


Biofuels have been the future for a long time.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The ethanol used for the 10% alcohol, 90% gasoline mixture called gasohol can be made from several other products besides grain - sugar beets or potato hauls, for example.

RASCOE: That's how NPR described it 44 years ago. Now the energy giant Chevron says it's letting two of its large biofuel plants in the Midwest go idle, even as demand for green energy soars. For a biofuel check-in, we're joined now by Silvia Secchi. She's a senior environmental researcher at the University of Iowa. Professor Secchi, thank you so much for being with us.

SILVIA SECCHI: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: How should we interpret Chevron's decision to idle these plants?

SECCHI: These plants were producing the kind of biodiesel to be added, so you cannot fully go 100% with it in your car. And so we're moving away from this kind of, like, more limited type of products so that the industry can really expand. This is the whole idea - that California has very aggressively moved its laws to limit carbon emissions, towards biofuels in general. And so what they are doing is they're retrofitting refineries that were used to refine fossil fuels to produce this renewable diesel.

So they're moving the production away from the Midwest into California. So this is extremely driven by policy, and what's happening now is that we have multiple levels of policy. So we have federal policy with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. There is money for these kind of fuels in the climate-smart partnerships. And this was money that comes out of the same kind of, like, pot where President Trump had the, you know, trade compensation for farmers. And then we have California.

RASCOE: The EPA just approved year-round sales of, like, ethanol-heavy fuel blends in eight Midwestern states. How will that affect consumers in those Midwestern states?

SECCHI: We consume different things. Fuels - right? - but we're also consumers of food products. And basically, if we're talking about ethanol, 40% of the corn crop goes to animal feed. Forty percent goes to ethanol now, and the remaining 20% goes to things like what's in your Coca-Cola. And so this has impacts on our food prices a little bit, not very much. But in terms of prices at the pump, you know, I don't think that it makes that much difference for us as consumers.

RASCOE: Is it fair to call biofuels clean energy, or are they just - you know, just a bit cleaner alternatives to regular gas and diesel?

SECCHI: The Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board posed that question to EPA and said, hey, there is some evidence that these fuels are not even cleaner because of all the land that they take up. Maybe we need to have a conversation about this. But, of course, you were White House correspondent. You do know how politicized...


SECCHI: ...The area of...


SECCHI: ...Biofuels is.

RASCOE: I mean, when we look overall at the push for greener energy, at least when it comes to cars, right now, the focus really seems to be on electric vehicles. So then where does that leave the role for biofuels at this point?

SECCHI: I think that the industry strategy is pretty clear. What the industry is doing is setting itself up, essentially, to produce sustainable aviation and long-term transportation fuels. And in order to do that, they are marginally changing, I would say, the way which the fuels are produced. So we have more conservation practices at the farm level. We have carbon capture and storage of the CO2 so that we lower, essentially, the emissions associated with this older products, and we can compete in the international sustainable aviation fuel market.

RASCOE: But can biofuels really work for the aviation industry?

SECCHI: This is a very, very heavily contested space. There is a lot of interest in not really going for more transformative changes and essentially, you know, modifying the system at the margin and hoping, to some extent, that it produces enough change. I myself tend to be more on the skeptical side because I live in Iowa, and I see that the consequences of these production processes are not just on carbon. You know, we have water quality problems. We have some of the highest cancer rates in the nation. And so there's all sorts of environmental issues associated with the production processes behind these more traditional biofuels.

RASCOE: That's Silvia Secchi of the University of Iowa. Thank you so much for being with us.

SECCHI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.