D.C. Circuit Court Rules in Earthjustice Case Challenging EPA’s 2019 Renewable Fuel Volumes


Ruling addresses environmental concerns from biofuel crop production in connection with the climate crisis and habitat and water quality degradation


Nydia Gutiérrez, Earthjustice

Mike Saccone, National Wildlife Federation

Today, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling finding that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act when setting the renewable fuel volumes for 2019. Today’s ruling is a victory for both endangered species and the environment.

In February 2019, Earthjustice, on behalf of Sierra Club, Healthy Gulf, and National Wildlife Federation, sued the EPA arguing that it set illegally high required amounts of biofuels, made largely from corn and soy, despite evidence that mandating more biofuel would lead to increased corn and soy production, which in turn destroys habitat, degrades water quality, and leads to other grave environmental harms. 

EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) Program determines the volume of renewable fuel that must be introduced into the U.S. fuel supply each year. Levels are to be set in accordance with statutory targets under the Clean Air Act. Although the program was intended to reduce environmental harms associated with reliance on fossil fuel, it has instead led — according to EPA itself — to the conversion of millions of acres of grassland to primarily corn production. This has eliminated vital habitat, caused massive nutrient runoff into waters, and — contrary to the express purpose of the law — released millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere from the soil and accelerated the climate crisis

“This decision states clearly what the National Wildlife Federation and others have been saying for years: that EPA and proponents within the biofuel industry have been ignoring the scientific record and even basic logic in continuing to claim that the Renewable Fuel Standard has had no effect on land use or wildlife habitat,” said David DeGennaro, policy specialist for climate and biofuels at the National Wildlife Federation. “The court also finds that the agency has ignored its own statutory duties under the Endangered Species Act in order to perpetuate this falsehood. The EPA can, and must, do better.”

On behalf of Sierra Club, Healthy Gulf, and National Wildlife Federation, Earthjustice argued that EPA violated the Endangered Species Act by finding that the 2019 volumes would have no effect on threatened and endangered species and/or their critical habitat. We relied on evidence, including a report from EPA itself, indicating that the RFS was associated with land conversion and harmful agricultural practices that harmed listed species and their habitat. The Court agreed with us.

We also argued that — in light of the land conversion and associated environmental impacts linked to the RFS — it was arbitrary and capricious for EPA not to use its general waiver authority under the Clean Air Act to reduce the fuel volumes to prevent severe environmental harm. Again, the Court agreed with us.

“The production of renewable biomass to satisfy the mandated volumes under the renewable fuel standard has led to extensive land conversion for the production of corn and soy, and this, in turn, harms our environment, wildlife, habitat, and the climate,” said Carrie Apfel, senior attorney in the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at Earthjustice. “With today’s ruling, we’re ensuring that EPA effectively considers the grave environmental and climate consequences of this program when setting fuel volumes in the future.”

The Court has sent the rule back to EPA for reconsideration.


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