Fight over cleaner fuels might get dirty

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2017

If a bill expanding the availability of higher-ethanol fuel reaches a vote in a Senate committee next week, opponents plan to unleash dozens of potential amendments to kill or whittle away at federal ethanol mandates.

Lawmakers on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee could face votes on ending the mandate for conventional ethanol — made mostly with corn — either immediately or in 2022; restricting the generation of renewable fuel credits to only unionized ethanol plants; waiving the mandate when corn prices rise to a certain level; and requiring physical barriers to misfueling at gas stations, according to a list being circulated among lobbying organizations.

And those are just some of the proposals related to ethanol. Additional amendments will likely surface dealing with a wide range of energy-related issues, lobbyists said.

Corn-based ethanol appears to be the main target, as some of the potential amendments being circulated leave untouched the mandates for cellulosic and advanced biofuels that many Democrats endorse.

At issue is S. 517, a measure by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) that would remove seasonal restrictions on the sale of E15 fuel, which is 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline. Fischer and other corn-state lawmakers aim to make E15 available year-round, ending a limitation by U.S. EPA based on concerns about ozone pollution.

The outcome of the markup — if it’s held — is far from certain, industry sources said. While lawmakers such as Fischer and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) promote ethanol, Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) opposes the legislation, as does Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who criticized ethanol mandates in a floor speech yesterday.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) could be a key Democratic vote and has expressed skepticism, saying he likely would oppose the bill unless changes are made in the system of renewable fuel credits that companies trade in order to comply.

Barrasso said yesterday that he’s working with Fischer on whether to schedule a committee vote. Fischer said Barrasso hadn’t discussed whether he would allow a flood of amendments, which could complicate passage.

Although foes of Fischer’s bill drew attention to potentially difficult amendments, Inhofe told E&E News he doesn’t necessarily support loading up the debate with such measures.

“You don’t need amendments. You just need to kill it,” Inhofe said.

E15 is sold in 28 states by a handful of retailers including Sheetz Inc., Kum & Go and Hy-Vee. The federal government has allowed its sale since 2001, although EPA hasn’t approved its use in vehicles made before then or in many smaller engines such as those on motorcycles.

Most gasoline sold in the United States is E10, with 10 percent ethanol. Fuel with ethanol is often cheaper than gasoline, and proponents say E15 can give cars more kick because of its higher octane level.

Ethanol has become a standard part of the fuel supply since Congress passed the renewable fuels standard in 2005 and updated it in 2007. This year, the government mandated 19.28 billion gallons of total renewable fuel; of that, 15 billion gallons is conventional renewable fuel such as corn-based ethanol.

Critics, including Inhofe, say E15 is less efficient, eating into the savings from lower prices. A coalition of groups opposed to the mandate, including the National Wildlife Federation, said in a conference call with reporters that expanded use of ethanol will convert more wildlife habitat to corn production.

In his speech, Inhofe said the debate unnecessarily divides Republicans. And while he told E&E News that Fischer is “one of my closest friends,” in his speech he cast ethanol advocates as environmentalists locked in a war against fossil fuels.

“The attacks will keep coming,” Inhofe said.

The Renewable Fuels Association, representing ethanol makers, pushed back against Inhofe.

“Senator Inhofe’s claim that the RFS is harming the oil industry is laughable, as the true motivation is about lost marketshare. Consumers win when there’s a choice at the pump, and the RFS helps ensure consumer choice,” RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen said in a statement.