Ethanol mandate seen safe from cut

Bills aimed at lessening impact of blend rule face firm opposition in Congress

WASHINGTON — Congress is unlikely to muster enough support in 2014 to repeal or significantly roll back a controversial measure requiring ethanol to be mixed into the nation’s gasoline supply, lawmakers say.

That’s a welcome reprieve to supporters of the predominantly corn-based fuel who have seen the once-lauded energy source come under attack in Washington.

A number of bills have been introduced to dramatically reduce the impact of the Renewable Fuel Standard, a mandate that requires refiners to blend ever-increasing amounts of biofuels into the nation’s motor fuel supply through 2022.

But lawmakers from the country’s largest ethanol-producing states in the Midwest said enough opposition remains from other members of Congress that those efforts are unlikely to pass.

“Although there are some opponents of the RFS in Congress, it is unlikely that efforts to repeal or substantially weaken it will gain much traction anytime soon,” said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. “Many others in Congress, myself included, will continue working very hard to ensure we maintain the integrity of this important program.”

Legislation introduced in December by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would remove from the mandate the component that requires fuel to be made from corn, greatly diminishing the prominence of the Renewable Fuel Standard. Smaller mandates for advanced biofuels such as cellulosic would remain in place. A similar bill has been introduced in the House. Other measures proposed in Congress would take more moderate steps, such as banning any fuel blends with more than 10 percent ethanol.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, said there are a lot of members in the House and Senate “who understand the value of the Renewable Fuel Standard and will continue to fight to protect it.”

Grassley, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said if any major overhaul of the Renewable Fuel Standard did make it through Congress, he expected “President Obama, who campaigned in Iowa on his support for biofuels, to veto any legislation that would undermine this successful policy.”

The White House, however, came under fire after the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in November that the fuel blending requirement in the Renewable Fuel Standard be cut. It was the first time the Obama administration had considered lowering the mandate, which was put in place by Congress in 2005 and strengthened two years later.

The EPA has said the increasing levels laid out by Congress in 2007 are unrealistic. Its proposal, the agency said, would put the fuel standard on a “steady path forward” that ensures it would continue to grow while recognizing “practical limits” on ethanol blending called the blend wall — a level at which refiners must include more ethanol into the country’s fuel mix than can be blended in at a 10 percent threshold accepted in all vehicles.

The EPA so far has received nearly 12,000 comments from the public on the proposal.

Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and gas companies, told reporters Tuesday that the EPA’s proposed reduction in the mandate was a good first step but didn’t go far enough. The oil group has made repealing the Renewable Fuel Standard a top priority for 2014, but it has acknowledged that gaining congressional approval for the move is going to be hard.

“I’m hopeful in the Congress we can convince members of both parties … that there needs to be a permanent fix,” said Gerard. “The likelihood of passage is unclear at this point. We’re going to continue to push.”

Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, said he didn’t expect Congress to change the Renewable Fuel Standard, at least in the near term, as lawmakers await a decision from the EPA. The upcoming November election and a busy workload in Congress also should further reduce momentum to make a change, he said.

“I suspect the fervor to address a program that fundamentally is not broken and in fact is working pretty darn well will gradually dissipate,” Dinneen said.