Dems push revised bill to phase out ethanol mandate

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 9, 2018

Congressional critics of the federal renewable fuel standard yesterday proposed revised legislation to phase out corn ethanol mandates, adding a new provision encouraging farmers to convert cornfields back to pasture.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced the “Growing Renewable Energy Through Existing and New Environmentally Responsible [GREENER] Fuels Act,” telling reporters in a conference call that they’re trying to add an environmental twist to broader efforts to scale back the RFS.

The bills — identical in the House and Senate — would charge a 10-cent fee on each renewable fuel credit sold, using the revenue to establish a land protection fund, which the Interior Department could use to support easements on private land to keep it out of crop production, to keep lands in conservation use or to help farmers transition away from crop production.

The legislation comes as discussions among Trump administration officials, congressional offices and trade groups on potential changes to the RFS continue. An expected meeting this week at the White House didn’t materialize.

Although another meeting may occur Monday, one of the main pro-ethanol players on the issue, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), won’t be participating, a spokesman said yesterday.

Welch and other RFS critics say the ethanol mandate has driven the conversion of grassland to corn since the fuel law’s enactment in 2005, an assertion backed by studies at the University of Wisconsin but questioned by ethanol groups that say corn has been planted largely on land switched from other crops (Greenwire, Nov. 16, 2017).

A U.S. EPA report on land use changes tied to the RFS, required through the renewable fuel law, is four years overdue. Welch said he hasn’t heard back from EPA on the issue and that the bill also would require such reports.

The loss of grassland has hurt wildlife habitat and compromised environmental benefits from those lands, including sequestering carbon tied to climate change, said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, who joined Udall and Welch on the conference call.

Former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), now leading a policy consulting firm called Waxman Strategies, also joined, saying he’d made a mistake in pushing the RFS, which Congress last updated in 2007.

Welch called the RFS a “well-intentioned flop” that hasn’t made the air cleaner or given the boost to cellulosic and advanced biofuels that proponents wanted.

Welch previously pushed legislation to scale back the RFS with Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas). The latest bill preserves some of his past ideas, including capping the amount of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline at 9.7 percent. Gas sold now typically has 10 percent ethanol.

The bills would also extend the mandate for cellulosic biofuel until volumes reach 2 billion gallons annually or until 2037, whichever comes first.

“Corn is not good for the environment, but other cellulosic crops are,” Welch said.

Prospects for the legislation aren’t clear, and both lawmakers acknowledged that passage this year could be a long shot because Congress hasn’t reached a consensus on changes to the RFS.

“I think we find the common ground first,” Udall said.

The American Coalition for Ethanol, a trade group, dismissed the legislation as “strange and unserious.”

In a statement, ACE Chief Executive Officer Brian Jennings said, “Dismantling the RFS in this way would increase pump prices and greenhouse gas emissions. It would also be the final nail in the coffin for some farmers and rural communities who are already struggling.”