Hearing epitomizes Hill battles over biofuels

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Officially, a congressional hearing held yesterday was meant to explore the “scientific, technical and consumer impacts” of E15, or gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol.

But while witnesses from the auto and motorcycle industries shared surveys and studies on the new fuel, the hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Environment mostly served to feed the divisive war of words over ethanol on Capitol Hill.

The hearing drew scorn from biofuels groups, which in the days leading up to it complained that neither ethanol advocates nor government officials got a chance to testify — only critics of the fuel.

Subcommittee ranking member Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) raised similar concerns at the hearing, complaining that the majority leaders of the panel did not give her sufficient opportunity to reach out to Department of Energy or U.S. EPA officials to defend their study and approval of E15.

“I am concerned that, in the hearing charter and in the witness testimony, the main literature that is being used to refute the EPA’s science on E15 is being provided by a group that is largely financed by the American Petroleum Institute and several automobile manufacturers,” Bonamici said.

E15 has so far been slow to penetrate the fuel market — which is currently dominated by gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol — and is only sold at about 20 gas stations around the country. EPA approved its use for cars from model years 2001 or newer through two waivers of Clean Air Act requirements.

The witnesses from the auto club AAA, the American Motorcyclist Association and the Coordinating Research Council, a vehicular research organization, charged that EPA’s approval of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol was premature and irresponsible. They cited worries over safety and inadvertent misfueling of vehicles like motorcycles not approved for its use. Industry-funded CRC studies, they said, show that the fuel would damage both engines and fuel systems of popular car models.

During the hearing, Republican members of the subcommittee said they shared the concerns expressed by the witnesses.

“Unfortunately, the more E15 is studied, the more concerns are identified,” said subcommittee Vice Chairman Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who presided over the hearing. “In addition to potential widespread impacts on vehicle engines, EPA has led a haphazard transition to E15 usage marked by regulatory confusion, bungled implementation and a lack of consumer education.”

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a vocal critic of ethanol who is currently circulating draft legislation that would require the National Academy of Sciences to conduct further study of E15, pushed back against Bonamici’s criticism of the hearing.

“The Democrats did have a chance to invite a witness, but they chose not to do so,” said Sensenbrenner, who last year authored similar legislation that was approved by the full House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

In an interview after the hearing, Bonamici said that Democrats on the committee had considered inviting biofuels producers or trade groups to testify, but “in light of the witnesses we knew were coming, we didn’t think that that was important.”

“We will be submitting information to the record,” she added, including a DOE critique of an industry study linking engine damage to E15.

The hearing comes amid several attempts by industry groups and GOP lawmakers to halt the widespread use of E15.

A coalition of oil, livestock, food and environmental interests used the hearing to circulate a letter that supported recent Senate legislation introduced by Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and David Vitter (R-La.) that would freeze the level of ethanol blending at 10 percent, effectively reversing EPA’s decisions on E15.

Oil and food groups also last week petitioned the Supreme Court to take up their legal challenge to EPA’s decisions, which they say go against agency precedent (Greenwire, Feb. 21).