You are here: Home Public Policies Policies in the United States U.S. Biofuel Policy RFS Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions About Sugarcane Ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standard


What is sugarcane ethanol?

Ethanol is the general term for alcohol-based fuels produced by fermenting many different plants. Sugarcane ethanol is biofuel derived from sugarcane, a crop cultivated in the United States, Brazil and more than 100 other countries. This clean and affordable renewable fuel helps cut U.S. dependence on Middle East oil and improves the environment.

Why would the United States want to use sugarcane ethanol?

It’s good for energy security. Sugarcane ethanol is a reliable option for diversifying energy supplies and improving U.S. energy security so Americans are not dependent on any one source or country.

It’s also good for the environment. Sugarcane ethanol emits significantly less heat-trapping greenhouse gases than gasoline and other types of ethanol. It is one of the few fuels designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an “advanced renewable fuel” because it reduces carbon dioxide emissions by more than 60 percent compared to gasoline on a full lifecycle basis.

I don't have a car that runs on ethanol. Why should I care?

You probably put ethanol in your tank the last time you filled up at a gas station. Most gasoline sold in the United States today contains at least 10% ethanol, and vehicles built after 2001 can use gasoline containing up to 15% ethanol. American cars and trucks consumed around 16 billion gallons of renewable fuel in 2014, making ethanol an important part of the U.S. fuel supply.

What is America's current policy towards ethanol?

With the goal of improving U.S. energy security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Congress in 2007 significantly expanded a program requiring increasing volumes of renewable fuel in America’s energy supply. The Renewable Fuels Standard (or RFS) calls for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022. Congress capped conventional corn ethanol at 15 billion gallons to stimulate development of other advanced biofuels and provided the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency significant flexibility to administer the RFS program.

What's the difference between corn ethanol and sugarcane ethanol?
Ethanol is made by fermenting sugars. Most ethanol manufactured in the United States comes from corn, while Brazilian ethanol is made from sugarcane. Generally, there's no chemical difference between ethanol produced from one crop or another. However, starchy crops like corn must first be broken down into simple sugars before they can be used to produce ethanol (a two-step process). Since sugarcane produces these simple sugars naturally, the production process for sugarcane ethanol is more efficient (a one-step process) yielding important benefits compared to other plants.
What does it mean to be an advanced biofuel?

Congress clearly intended for the expanded renewable fuels program to stimulate innovation and development of advanced biofuels that offer superior environmental benefits by capping conventional corn ethanol at 15 billion gallons. Renewable Fuel Standard volume requirements for this advanced category grow from one billion gallons in 2010 to 21 billion gallons by 2022. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates which renewable fuels qualify as advanced biofuels, and the key condition for designation is demonstrating lifecycle greenhouse gas reductions of at least 50% compared to gasoline. EPA identified Brazilian sugarcane ethanol as an advanced biofuel in 2010 after determining it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 61%.

Are there other advanced biofuels besides sugarcane ethanol?

Biodiesel and biofuels produced from cellulosic material (any plant fiber, including the non-starch parts of corn plants such as stalks and cobs) also qualify as advanced biofuels. The United States consumed 1.75 billion gallons of biodiesel in 2014, and several manufacturing sites designed for commercial production of cellulosic biofuels debuted last year in the U.S. and Brazil. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of approved renewable fuel pathways that can be used to produce biofuels that qualify as advanced under the RFS.

What about new studies that question greenhouse gas reductions from sugarcane ethanol?
Brazilian sugarcane ethanol producers welcome and continue to support new scientific analyses of sugarcane, particularly its lifecycle emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a key arbiter on this topic, and EPA found that sugarcane ethanol surpasses the 50% threshold for designation as an advanced renewable fuel. In fact, EPA concluded that emissions reductions from sugarcane ethanol exceed the higher 60% threshold for cellulosic biofuels.
How much sugarcane ethanol do Americans use? Can Brazil supply enough to meet our advanced biofuel needs?

Sugarcane ethanol plays a modest but important role supplying the United States with clean renewable fuel. From 2012 through 2014, more than one billion gallons of sugarcane biofuel imported from Brazil flowed into American vehicles. During this time, sugarcane ethanol has comprised only 2% of all renewable fuel consumed by Americans, but has provided nearly 15 percent of the U.S. advanced biofuel supply. 

In terms of future supply, Brazilian sugarcane producers are making investments to expand production, so Americans can depend on more advanced biofuel from sugarcane. Brazil currently produces more than seven billion gallons of sugarcane ethanol each year and typically makes between 400 million and one billion gallons of its annual production available for other countries to import.  By 2020, Brazilian sugarcane producers and the California Air Resources Board estimate that the U.S. may import between 850 million and 1.75 billion gallons of sugarcane ethanol to satisfy America’s demand for low-carbon biofuels.

Could sugarcane ethanol be produced in countries other than Brazil?

Sugarcane ethanol can potentially reshape global fuel markets. More than 100 countries grow sugarcane, and most could produce and use ethanol. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 10% of the world’s land available and suitable for cane production is actually used for sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane-producing countries are typically tropical, developing countries that would benefit tremendously from this opportunity for significant economic development.

What's your position on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to lower renewable fuel standards in 2014?

While Brazilian sugarcane biofuel producers are disappointed that EPA’s proposal significantly reduces target volumes for advanced biofuels below Congressionally mandated levels, we are pleased to see growing requirements for advanced biofuels in 2015 and 2016. This approach leaves the door open for continued American access to sugarcane ethanol, one of the cleanest and most commercially ready advanced biofuels available today. 

We urge EPA to set renewable fuel standards encouraging production and consumption of all available advanced biofuels.

What about new proposed requirements on foreign biofuels?

Brazilian sugarcane producers are concerned the regulatory process is being used to impose onerous, anti-competitive requirements on foreign biofuels. In comments submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency, we argued that EPA’s proposed rulemaking is unnecessary and threatens American access to advanced biofuels - including sugarcane ethanol.

But don’t just take our word for it. A growing chorus of biofuel proponents and stakeholders question the need for these changes and their practical impact, as you can see in comments from Chevron, BP America, Shell, Advanced Biofuel AssociationIndependent Fuel Terminal Operators Association, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, American Petroleum Institute and Adecoagro, one of South America’s leading renewable energy companies.

EPA’s intentions are laudable, and we support the agency’s goal of ensuring the regulatory system tracking American biofuel consumption (known as Renewable Identification Numbers or RINs) is accurate. But the current system monitoring foreign producers isn’t broken. Significant protections already guard against RIN concerns, and the Brazilian sugarcane industry worked proactively with EPA to ensure Brazilian producers maintain appropriate records. Plus, there has never been an instance of RIN fraud linked to Brazil. These proposed changes appear to be a solution in search of a problem that will threaten American access to one of the few advanced biofuels on the market today.

View additional Frequently Asked Questions on Sugarcane

Advanced Biofuels from Sugarcane

Renewable fuel iconSugarcane ethanol plays a modest but important role supplying Americans with clean renewable fuel.  

Learn More Button

download the fact sheet here

Download the Sugarcane Biofuels Fact Sheet

RFS fact sheet

Site Map
About Us Privacy Policy