By Chris Prentice
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's in-house investigators have launched a review of the environmental benefits stemming from the country’s decade-old program requiring the use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline.
The investigation, to be conducted by the Inspector General for EPA, will examine whether the agency has complied with reporting requirements and is using recent research on the full environmental impacts of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), according to a letter dated Oct. 15 on the EPA's website.
Both oil industry and environmental groups have questioned whether the EPA properly evaluated the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of corn ethanol to calculate its global warming potential. They say land-use change associated with its production outweighs the environmental benefits of replacing gasoline.
The review was self-initiated and "discretionary," said Jeffrey Lagda, a spokesman for the Inspector General's office. He said it would be "premature" to give a timeline.
The EPA, which is tasked with implementing the program, has faced mounting criticism for years-long delays in releasing of annual targets for biofuels use. The agency in late May proposed long-awaited requirements for 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Just four months ago, EPA official Janet McCabe was grilled by a Senate panel for the agency's handling of the program and EPA has been sued over the delays in regulating the program. Both the oil and corn industries - which battle in Washington over the program- have said those delays have hurt their industries.
The investigation will likely bring heightened attention to the much-debated program ahead of Nov. 30, both the deadline to finalize EPA's May proposal and the start of United Nations climate change discussions in Paris.
The review will "ensure public health and the environment are protected," the letter said. RFS was created in 2005 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cut reliance on foreign petroleum-based fuels, and boost rural economies.
A review of RFS and corn ethanol will show environmental benefits, said Geoff Cooper, senior vice president with the Renewable Fuel Association, which represents biofuels products.
But development of the advanced fuel sector has not met the targets, as the economic downturn and political uncertainty hit investment.
"The original intent of RFS was to stimulate fuels other than corn ethanol. Corn ethanol was supposed to be the bridge. But it's not happening," said Emily Cassidy of the Environmental Working Group, a critic of the program.
(Additional Reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown)