Congressional confab seen as first step toward slowing ethanol growth

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 26, 2017

A roundtable meeting yesterday of House Energy and Commerce Committee members on potential changes to the federal renewable fuel standard was a first step toward slowing the growth of ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply, a critic of the RFS said.

“The fact that we’re meeting is step one, so we’ve got a long way to go,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who has called for strict limits on the amount of ethanol that can be introduced into the market and revamping the renewable fuel mandate.

Welch, who attended the meeting with lawmakers and stakeholder groups, wouldn’t divulge specific policy changes discussed at the session. He has supported limiting ethanol to no more than 9.7 percent of the nation’s gasoline demand, backing legislation with Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) to impose that limit. The RFS has allowed the level to slightly exceed 10 percent.

“My takeaway is that people are serious about trying to make some improvements,” Welch said. Asked what the next step would be, he said only, “We’ll see.”

Welch has emerged as one of Congress’ more outspoken critics of ethanol mandates, which he has said encourage use of fuel that can damage small engines. Growing ethanol use also hurts the environment by pressuring farmers to convert marginal lands and forests to cornfields, he has said.

Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) has said changes to the RFS are a top priority for the committee, raising the likelihood that the panel will take up the issue this year. Flores and Welch have agreed to try to broker a compromise (E&E News PM, March 1).

The RFS has steady support in corn states that rely on the crop’s use for ethanol. That’s particularly true with farm incomes falling and corn prices hovering below $4 per bushel, although Welch and others have complained that ethanol mandates can be responsible for extra-high corn prices that drive up feed costs for dairy farmers in the Northeast and other areas.

Efforts to scale back the 2005 law, which was updated in 2007, have never gone far. But early supporters’ hope of spurring a cellulosic ethanol industry that wouldn’t rely so heavily on corn also hasn’t been realized — a goal that pro-ethanol groups such as Growth Energy say would be easier if more ethanol were allowed in the fuel supply.

Pro-ethanol groups have promised a vigorous defense of the program and have been pressing Congress and the Trump administration to boost ethanol by removing restrictions on the sale of the higher-ethanol fuel E15 during summer months. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is planning to vote on that issue this year, and U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has spoken favorably of the idea.

A statement from a committee aide, Dan Schneider, said the group had a “constructive discussion” and indicated the committee will keep reviewing the policy before making moves.

“Today’s roundtable was a great first step in our long-term efforts to dig into the RFS, its role in transportation fuels policy, and its future,” Schneider said. “The roundtable provided the committee an opportunity to have a constructive discussion with the various stakeholders involved in implementing the RFS. We’re looking forward to continuing our thorough review in order to better understand what’s working, what’s not, and whether the goals of the program are being achieved.”

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.