The EPA And Copernicus

t rudnicki

By Timothy J Rudnicki, Esq

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus dared to challenge the accepted notion that the earth was at the center of the universe. Using his powers of observation, without a telescope (it was another 50 years after his death when Galileo would have a telescope and validate the Copernican model), and relying upon his knowledge of mathematics, Copernicus postulated that it is the sun, rather than the earth, which is at the center of our universe (solar system). Who, today, given the scientific evidence we have, would suggest the earth is at the center of our universe?

We humans, whether we work for federal agencies or biofuel producers, sometimes try our best to interpret the world around us with the tools available to us. The issue is whether we do the analysis with our gut or intellect, capitulate to our bias or use scientific findings and analysis.  This short excerpt from a NASA teaching module provides some perspective about a preconceived notion and the role of science:

    The earth was considered the center of the universe because the leading theory about this at the time came from the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy in about 140 A.D. In this theory, the earth was at the center of the universe, and the sun, the moon, the planets and stars orbited the earth.
    The center of the universe remained at the center of the earth, in the view of the majority of the scientific community, until the 1500s. Occasionally there were those who suggested otherwise, the most famous of which is Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek scientist well-ahead of his time, but he, unfortunately, was not taken very seriously for very long.
    The successful challenge to the earth-centered universe was begun by the Polish Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543. In his book De Revolutionibus, he argued that the Sun was at the center of the solar system (and hence universe), and that the planets - including the earth - revolved around the sun. This heliocentric theory provided a conceptually simpler explanation for certain peculiar `retrograde' motions of the planets than the Ptolemaic geocentric theory but encountered stiff resistance from those who felt it was heretical to move humanity so far from the center of the universe.

Keep in mind that it was only in the 1930s when humanity gained the understanding, thanks to Hubble, that the universe is actually expanding.  So, we keep on learning. But what do we do with this knowledge, whether it’s about the universe or biofuels?

With respect to biofuels and the RFS, the EPA has at least two solid arguments for aggressively enforcing the Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs).  First, plain and simple: it’s the law. The RFS is unequivocal about the number of gallons of renewable biofuels which are to displace finite, carbon intensive petroleum. The public policy purpose is clear - displace petroleum with renewable biofuels to improve environmental quality, reduce dependence on oil and keep more energy dollars at home.

Another argument the EPA has to aggressively enforce the RVOs is found in science.  While there are many knee-jerk reactions to the term biofuels, the science is clear: ethanol from biomass such as corn starch is 44% up to 57% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum gasoline. Argonne National Laboratory has done an extensive analysis of the upstream and downstream GHG emissions associated with ethanol from a variety of renewable feedstocks.

In addition to the legal, policy and scientific arguments for the use of more biofuels, there is an important local and regional economic factor.  The Minnesota biofuel producers I know actually live near their biofuel production plants.  Many who work in the plants live nearby and use their income to support themselves and their families.  All the consumer, economic, energy independence and environmental benefits are really straightforward - biofuel producers use locally grown renewable ingredients and a biological process just like that used to brew beer. Biofuels mean real energy independence and economic growth because the fuel is homegrown and more energy dollars stay in Minnesota.

Perhaps in Copernicus’ time it was difficult for the establishment to change its views.  Over the last 400 years we have learned much more about our place in the world and the universe. And we have learned a great deal more about the science surrounding biofuels and the economic and environmental benefits. We are not asking the EPA to wrestle with an issue as profound as the heliocentric theory. We simply ask that the EPA comply with the RFS and acknowledge the scientific findings about the way biofuels, such as ethanol, can right here, right now, reduce GHG emissions. EPA, for the well-being of current and future generations, let renewable biofuels displace petroleum - comply with and enforce the RFS.

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