Regulatory Developments

House Committee Holds Hearing on Bioenergy RD&D for the Fuels and Chemicals of Tomorrow

March 18, 2022 PRINT

On March 16, 2022, the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing on “Bioenergy Research and Development for the Fuels and Chemicals of Tomorrow.” According to the hearing charter, the purpose of the hearing was to examine the status of bioenergy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) activities carried out by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The hearing also considered advancements in bioenergy research and the potential role of this resource in a cleaner energy transition. Lastly, the hearing was intended to help inform future legislation to support and guide the United States’ bioenergy RD&D enterprise. Witnesses included:

  • Dr. Jonathan Male, Chief Scientist for Energy Processes and Materials, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL);
     
  • Dr. Andrew Leakey, Director of the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign;
     
  • Dr. Laurel Harmon, Vice President of Government Affairs, LanzaTech; and
     
  • Dr. Eric Hegg, Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Michigan State University.
     

In his oral and written testimony, Male made the following three points about the state of research:

  • The U.S. must expand its understanding of real-life biomass feedstocks -- the raw materials to be manipulated through various technologies to create bioenergy and bioproducts -- to apply successfully emerging science and technology at the scales required to meet carbon-reduction goals;
     
  • The United States has a great opportunity to turn current waste carbon streams, from municipal solid waste and landfill gases to used carbon fiber, into tomorrow’s carbon resources by expanding its RD&D agenda to increase efforts on these important potential biomass feedstocks; and
     
  • Bioenergy and bioproducts can and should play a critical role in reducing carbon emissions, particularly in sectors of the economy that are difficult to electrify, including aviation, maritime, and industry.
     

Leakey testified about the need for next-generation bioenergy and bioproducts as part of a decarbonized economy. According to Leakey, there is “enormous potential to produce abundant supplies of renewable bioenergy and bioproducts from plant biomass,” which would:

  • Develop a more just economy in which additional individuals and communities would receive economic benefit from the production of fuels and chemicals, including in rural areas;
     
  • Reduce reliance on foreign sources of energy and improve resilience in the face of international conflicts or natural disasters;
     
  • Support farming communities in developing a more diverse, sustainable, and resilient agricultural system; and
     
  • Counteract the progression of climate change.
     

In her testimony, Harmon emphasized that DOE’s RD&D programs should be technology- and feedstock-agnostic to advance all technically and economically viable pathways to produce chemicals and fuels. According to Harmon, DOE funding is needed not just for research and development but also for demonstration and deployment to ensure that plants are built and that they are built, to the extent possible, in underserved and/or economically depressed locations. Harmon suggested that the bioenergy concept be expanded to chemicals and materials that require carbon and are currently made from petroleum. Harmon stated that DOE also needs support for the staff and the systems that will enable it to accelerate the selection of these projects.

Hegg testified that a potential growth area is increased coordination among the agencies under the purview of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, including DOE and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Hegg suggested that “[t]his coordination could be especially powerful if expanded to include other federal agencies that fund bioenergy related research, including the [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)].”

Commentary

The witnesses highlighted how bioenergy and bioproducts have the potential to reduce carbon emissions significantly and counteract the progression of climate change. Expanding DOE funding for RD&D would help ensure that underserved, economically depressed, and rural areas receive economic benefit from the production of biofuels and biochemicals. As reported in our January 24, 2022, blog item, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a new effort under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to streamline the review of new chemicals that are substitutes for petroleum-based fuels or fuel additives that use biobased or waste-derived sources to produce biofuels. Both Congressional and federal agency support for bioenergy and bioproducts are critical for building a resilient, dependable, and sustainable system that fosters innovation to develop a circular economy.


 
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