House Democrats Get Aggressive on Biofuels

Source: By Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor • Posted: Sunday, September 27, 2020

A wave of disconnected yet related emails came pouring into the inbox Thursday afternoon.

Democrats in Congress sent out press releases on multiple bills that do different things on biofuels. Then the four, five or six major biofuel trade associations sent out their statements of support on this one and that.

After a little while, it became a little complicated tracking what exactly was happening. Is this bill part of that bill? Is this an amendment to that other bill?

What did become clear was Democrats in both the House and the Senate are paying more attention to biofuels at the moment. And yet, given that Congress is going to pass a temporary funding bill, and then go campaign, it’s probably going to take more effort in 2021 and beyond to see some of this legislation to fruition.

The House on Thursday passed a 900-page renewable energy bill, focusing heavily on issues such as energy efficiency — the Expanding Access to Sustainable Energy Act HR 4447. Within that bill, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., included a provision called the “Renewable Fuel Standard Integrity Act.” Under that language, EPA would be required to set a deadline for refiners to request exemptions from the RFS. EPA would also be required to publicly release the names of refiners requesting exemptions, the number of gallons that could be waived and the number of gallons of biofuels that would not be blended as a result.

“The House passage of H.R. 4447 moves us closer to holding EPA accountable for its reckless use of small refinery waivers,” Peterson said. “EPA has granted dozens of waivers in recent years and has refused to share details of their justification with Congress and the public. The waivers undermine the blending requirements required by law and harms rural communities that produce biofuels. The provisions of my bill will force EPA to publicly release details of these waiver petitions.”

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, also got a provision attached to the bill that would met ethanol producers eligible for funding under the bill’s carbon-capture provisions. At least one ethanol plant in Axne’s southwest Iowa district has been capturing carbon over the past five years and actually using the carbon to produce algae. The carbon capture program in the legislation directs the Department of Energy to conduct more research and invest in commercial applications for carbon-capture technologies.

The House vote was 220 -185 with 213 Democrats and seven Republicans voting for the bill while 18 Democrats and 166 Republicans voted against it. There are a lot of doubts about what comes next, but the Senate is working on its own energy bill. But we’re now looking at Congress breaking soon to campaign, the election, and who knows what kind of turmoil afterward. It’s highly unlikely anything substantive like and energy bill moves in a lame-duck session.

All that said, biofuel groups were also enthusiastic Thursday about a bill introduced by Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., another member of the House Agriculture Committee. Bustos introduced the “Next Generations Fuels Act, a bill that would focus on higher fuel octane to lower carbon emissions.

The National Corn Growers Association was among those praising Bustos’ bill. What it would do is establish a new 98 Research Octane Number (RON) for gasoline that would also require at least 30% lower greenhouse gas emissions than unblended gasoline. Ethanol, with an octane rating of 113, essentially would be the best fuel to achieve this higher octane level for blended gasoline. It would push fuels closer to E25 or E30.

The bill effectively supports a 2016 Department of Energy study on mid-level ethanol blends that details the benefits of a high-octane mid-level ethanol blend to increase vehicle efficiency and acceleration while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Higher ethanol blends provide those benefits without the carcinogens that come from aromatic chemicals that refiners often use to boost octane. The DOE report concluded a 25% to 40% volume blend of ethanol “would provide significant benefits to the United States.”

The Renewable Fuels Association, NCGA, Growth Energy and the National Farmers Union each issued news releases supporting Bustos’ bill. The American Coalition for Ethanol cited that the Next Generation Fuels Act “contains many of our top priorities” but ACE stated there are concerns about how Bustos’ bill accounts for carbon. It could undermine how some of the investment ethanol plants have made to reduce their carbon intensity, ACE stated.

Bustos’ bill would provide a lot of benefits for biofuel production and use at the expense of petroleum. So the bill is unlikely to move right now. The introduction is a little confusing because it begs the question of why wasn’t the Next Generation Fuels Act part of HR 4447, the Expanding Access to Sustainable Energy Act? It seems on the surface, Bustos’ bill and the support it got would have added to everything else in the bill the House passed.

I was told Bustos’ bill is largely meant to spark the next conversation about where biofuels needs to go beyond the RFS. That may take a lot of work in Congress. It may also require some of these rural members of Congress to consider giving up their spot on the Agriculture Committee and shifting to House Energy & Commerce, which is where any broad policy on biofuels would be drafted and advanced.

ACE, in its release, also recognized the Next Generation Fuels Act is essentially a marker for next year. ACE states the group looks forward to working with Bustos and others on higher ethanol blends “when the 117th session of Congress convenes.”

2016 Department of Energy report on mid-level ethanol blends: https://info.ornl.gov/…

HR 4447: Expanding Access to Sustainable Energy Act https://www.congress.gov/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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