Biotech companies urge lawmakers to leave RFS alone

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporte • Posted: Monday, March 13, 2017

The federal renewable fuel mandate is working just fine, biotechnology companies told Congress yesterday.

“Do nothing. Leave it exactly as it is,” former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, told a House Agriculture subcommittee.

The renewable fuel standard, which requires millions of gallons of biofuels to be mixed into the nation’s fuel supply, supports business investments that create jobs and are more environmentally friendly, Greenwood told the Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit at a hearing on farm bill programs.

The hearing was part of a series the Agriculture Committee is holding as it prepares for the 2018 farm bill. The RFS isn’t part of the farm bill, but other biofuels programs that are built around the fuel mandate are part of the legislation, which authorizes agriculture programs for five years.

Greenwood’s testimony comes as the RFS is entangled in debate among lawmakers and trade associations, mainly over which businesses should be responsible for meeting the mandate and whether U.S. EPA and Congress should encourage fuels higher in ethanol that the 10 percent blend sold in most gas stations. Trade groups nervous that the Trump administration may seek changes have stepped up their public relations in recent weeks.

The Trump administration’s stance on biofuels mandates hasn’t been completely clear. While Trump has spoken positively of ethanol and the RFS, the administration hasn’t weighed in on making adjustments to the program, leaving its future a bit uncertain.

“What’s necessary is stability,” Greenwood said, adding that companies made decisions about where to build plants or steer other investments based on confidence that the federal commitment to renewable fuels is unshaken. “Let the program complete its course as originally intended.”

Lawmakers on the panel didn’t push back, although subcommittee Chairman Austin Scott (R-Ga.) has supported legislation to dismantle the RFS. Opponents argue RFS mandates are unrealistic and have caused higher fuel prices for consumers.

While the Agriculture Committee doesn’t oversee the RFS — that task falls to the Energy and Commerce Committee — the farm bill authorizes programs that help renewable energy plants become established, as well as programs that support research and help farmers growing crops used for ethanol and similar fuels.

Greenwood’s organization represents companies engaged in research and development of various materials to be used in fuel, including traditional feedstocks such as soybeans and corn and less widely known materials such as switchgrass and sorghum.

The “beauty” of biofuels, Greenwood said, is the variety of materials that can be used to make it. But the industry hasn’t fully matured, and he said researchers are still looking for more effective ways to draw energy from rigid feedstocks that don’t break down as easily as corn.

The National Sorghum Producers, based in Lubbock, Texas, said in testimony that federal incentives such as the advanced biofuel payment program have helped sorghum producers break into the ethanol market. About a third of sorghum grown in the United States goes to ethanol, said the group’s strategic business director, John Duff. Sorghum is the third-biggest cereal grain produced in the United States, the U.S. Grains Council reported.

“Unlike other renewable energy feedstocks, sorghum was built to last and is here to stay,” Duff said.

Congress has stepped slowly into higher-ethanol blends such as E15, which is 15 percent ethanol. The farm bill includes the Rural Energy for America Program, which offers renewable energy grants to producers and small businesses but doesn’t allow money to be used for ethanol blending pumps.

Petroleum companies and some lawmakers are fighting against more high-ethanol fuel, even as E15 shows up in more places.

Thanks to sales by companies such as Sheetz and prices as much as a dime less per gallon compared to E10, E15 is sold in 615 gas stations around the country, and the number could climb to 1,200 by the end of this year, Greenwood said.