Electric cars vs. big ethanol

Source: By John Siciliano, Washington Examiner • Posted: Monday, January 7, 2019

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Batteries included. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Electric vehicles and ethanol will be pitted against each other in the new Congress as interest groups push lawmakers to bet on plug-in cars over corn-based biofuels.

“Corn ethanol has been a disaster for the environment,” said Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, an activist organization.

Faber, like many other environmentalists, wants to see the government switch from subsidizing corn ethanol and move to cleaner and more sustainable second-generation biofuels that don’t tax farm land as much as corn ethanol does, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change.

Electric car and truck proponents, meanwhile, say they can meet both policy goals — moving to next-generation biofuels and cutting emissions — if the government maintains its support for electric vehicles by keeping subsidies, increasing research and development funding, and expanding existing programs to support battery-powered cars.

More specifically, automakers are hoping to expand an existing incentive for electric vehicles in the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the nation’s ethanol and biofuel mandate, according to Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a trade group that represents automakers as well as utilities.

Through the Environmental Protection Agency’s renewable program, there is an incentive to count some types of renewable energy used in the recharging of electric cars as qualifying biofuels. Natural gas derived from crop waste and other renewable material, called “renewable natural gas,” can be used to generate electricity and qualify to receive credits as a renewable fuel under the RFS.

The RFS requires oil refiners to blend an increasing amount of renewable fuels into the nation’s gasoline and diesel supply. Refiners can now purchase credits from biogas producers that supply electric vehicles with electricity to show compliance with the program.

Electric vehicle proponents aim to lobby to have more fuel sources made eligible for the credits. “There are a lot of renewable electricity resources that could be valued in that system, and we would certainly like to see the RFS recognize that,” Cullen said.

One reason for pairing renewable electricity with electric cars is the issue of life-cycle emissions. Critics of electric cars have pointed out for years that the environmental benefits of electric cars will be canceled out if the energy they use comes from fossil fuels like coal.

For the vehicles to be truly clean, the electricity they consume must come from cleaner electricity generation and power plants.

But Cullen says that argument doesn’t carry as much weight as it once did, especially with the grid differing from one region to the next and with renewable energy and cleaner-burning natural gas making up large portions of the nation’s electricity.

“No matter where you’re driving in the United States, if you are driving on electricity, you are emitting less greenhouse gas emissions than an average gasoline car,” she explains.

Depending where you drive, the benefits can be enhanced by a grid with more renewables, Cullen said. But overall the effects of electrification are better, compared to using more conventional fuels, because of the gasoline and diesel it displaces, she said.

That gives the electric car a leg up when it comes to the climate debate that is expected to begin in the Democrat-controlled House this year.

Cullen says the most recent United Nations study on climate change — calling for a nearly complete switch to renewable energy by mid-century — makes an even stronger case for switching to electric vehicles.

“The main takeaway is that carbon emissions need to be addressed, and electrifying the transportation sector is essential to that,” she added.

On the environmentalists’ side of the argument, prominent groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund are aiming to boost “electrification” in the new Congress by focusing on budget and infrastructure bills that would help fund charging stations and other electric vehicle infrastructure.

Changing the renewable fuel program is lower on their to-do list.

Elizabeth Gore, vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, downplayed interest in revamping the renewable fuel program, saying that it entails “significant and complicated tradeoffs” in terms of protecting animal habitats and food security.

Instead, her group is focused on transitioning away from liquid fuels entirely, including ethanol, toward all-electric cars and trucks to take “advantage of the significant carbon benefits to be had as the electric grid becomes increasingly cleaner,” Gore said.

The House is likely to be more open to these ideas with the Democrats in control and leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying she wants to begin looking at options for climate legislation.

Yet GOP control of the Senate is a major obstacle to those ambitions. GOP-sponsored bills in the last Congress have looked at phasing out tax credits for electric car purchases.

In addition, there is also the likelihood that the Senate leadership may debate legislation that addresses the Renewable Fuel Standard by looking at ways to phase it out in 2022. Such a bill will likely face stiff opposition by farm-state Republicans and Democrats who want to preserve the ethanol standard.

The oil industry ultimately wants the EPA ethanol program rescinded, while the ethanol industry will not support a bill that phases out the program or changes it in any significant way.

Still, there may be an opportunity for electric cars in any debate over the ethanol standard. Cullen declined to say exactly how her group will approach the politics and policy of the program, but she will be rolling out the group’s policy agenda soon, discussing its legislative priorities in more detail.