Ethanol’s congressional cheerleader dismisses criticisms as ‘hogwash’

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 1, 2013

Iowa’s senior senator yesterday dismissed criticisms against ethanol as “hogwash” and accused the oil industry of deliberately putting up roadblocks to halt expanded ethanol use.

Speaking to a group of biofuels industry representatives and government officials gathered in Washington, D.C., Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said campaigns against the federal biofuels mandate were designed to spread “misinformation.” He issued a call to arms for biofuels supports to combat any push to either repeal or reform the renewable fuel standard.

“The threat to the renewable fuel standard has been consistent and well-funded by industries threatened by its success,” Grassley said. “The argument is that the standard either needs to be substantially overhauled or repealed altogether. And I dismiss both notions.”

The renewable fuel standard requires that refiners blend 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year into the nation’s motor fuel supply by 2022. It has been instrumental in expanding the nation’s ethanol production capacity and boosting agricultural economies but has fallen out of favor among lawmakers in refining and livestock states who tie it to higher food and fuel prices.

Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power wrapped up a two-day hearing on the standard in which most of the 16 GOP-invited witnesses urged the members to consider changes to the standard (E&E Daily, July 24).

Grassley — a farmer himself and ethanol’s longtime champion in Congress — said he would like the opportunity to “educate” the coalition of oil, food, livestock and environmental interests pushing to either change or completely eliminate the standard.

If given the chance to address that coalition, Grassley said his first lesson would be that ethanol has contributed to lower gas prices at the pump. The second would be to counter the food-versus-fuel debate.

“The argument that we’re diverting food to fuel and subsequently driving up the cost for groceries has been proven to be what I’ve known for a long time: just simple hogwash,” the senator said. “The farm value of corn in retail food prices is so insignificant it’s hard to believe that this argument was ever made with a straight face.”

Grassley argued that ethanol has helped spur increased production of corn and advances in technology that have helped boost yields per acre. In Iowa, for example, yields have risen from 60 bushels an acre in the 1960s — when Grassley began farming — to an average of more than 180 bushels.

Countering arguments from some environmental groups and data from U.S. EPA that ethanol production has increased carbon dioxide emissions, Grassley said biofuels are also contributing to cleaner air and a cleaner environment.

“The science of carbon emissions from indirect land-use changes is murky,” Grassley claimed, “but even when you include it, today’s biofuels are reducing greenhouse emissions compared to petroleum.”

In his 20-minute speech at the Department of Energy’s annual biomass conference, Grassley reserved his harshest criticism for Big Oil.

Instead of preparing for the eventual increased ethanol that would need to be blended into fuel to meet the RFS targets, oil companies have constructed barriers to blending more than 10 percent ethanol into gasoline, Grassley said. Oil companies are now facing a situation where the RFS requires them to blend more ethanol into gasoline than is technically feasible in today’s marketplace.

“The oil industry created the problem. Now they’re trying to use this problem to undermine the RFS,” he said. “We should not let them get away with it.”

The oil industry says it supports renewable fuels but that its studies have shown that higher blends of ethanol than 10 percent could cause damage to car engines and void car warranties. Refiners are worried they could be stuck with liability issues should damage occur.

“The RFS is fundamentally broken because it will force higher levels of ethanol in gasoline than is safe for 95 percent of cars on the road today,” American Petroleum Institute spokesman Carlton Carroll said yesterday. “The best way to prevent consumers from being harmed is to end this unworkable mandate.”

But Grassley said most RFS discussions in D.C. begin with a “biased” starting point that the standard is broken beyond repair, he said, repeating a phrase used often by critics in the oil industry.

Conversations are also far removed from the ethanol capital of Iowa, the senator said.

“Sometimes in Washington,” he said, “you can soon come to the conclusion that people don’t know much about ethanol when they pronounce it ‘eethanol.'”