Corn growers face off with ethanol foes in House hearing

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013

Without the federal biofuel mandate, the nation’s farm economy would likely be in a “deep recession,” the president of the corn industry’s biggest trade group told lawmakers yesterday.

Pam Johnson, a sixth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Floyd, Iowa, said ethanol over the past five years has fueled an increase in farm income, projected to reach a record $128 billion this year. Ethanol, she added, has also helped farmers shift away from relying on government subsidies to survive.

“Due to the tax revenues and job security that the [renewable fuel standard] enables, my small community has a new fire station, a remodeled hospital, and my grandson’s kindergarten class is large enough to need another teacher,” Johnson said.

The National Corn Growers Association president, though, found herself outnumbered on the final witness panel in a two-day hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power on the standard, which mandates that the country blend 36 billion gallons of conventional ethanol and advanced biofuels into the nation’s motor fuel supply

Yesterday, representatives from chicken, chain restaurants and environmental groups blamed corn ethanol for high commodity prices, increased land use and questionable greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Pointing to U.S. EPA data, Environmental Working Group Vice President of Government Affairs Scott Faber said ethanol has increased gasoline emissions by up to 66 percent compared to petroleum-based gasoline in facilities powered by coal but is allowed to be included in the RFS because of a grandfathering provision.

Corn’s fortunes, meanwhile, have been to livestock producers’ detriment, said the National Chicken Council senior vice president and chief economist, Bill Roenigk. Over the last five years, the RFS has increased feed costs by so much that at least a dozen chicken companies have gone out of business or severely scaled back their operations, Roenigk told lawmakers.

Feed costs for chickens, turkeys and eggs have gone up more than $50 billion over the last five years, Roenigk said.

There is “no workable or reasonable provision in the RFS to provide flexibility when the corn crop is severely inadequate to meet all the needs,” he said.

Johnson fended off attacks with studies showing ethanol has had a negligible impact on food prices and has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent. Much of the criticisms over the renewable fuel standard “are exaggerated at best and blatantly false at worst,” she said.

The battles over corn ethanol capped a long and contentious fight in the Energy and Power Subcommittee over whether lawmakers should repeal the renewable fuel standard, keep it as is or make reforms. After two days, it became apparent that repeal was likely off the table this year, but it’s unclear in what direction House lawmakers will take the standard going forward.

Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said only that Energy and Commerce Committee members would “proceed cautiously.”

“I don’t know precisely where we’re going to end up,” Whitfield said in closing the hearing, “but that’s what the political process is all about.”