House panel takes up bills forcing E15 withdrawal, overhauling advisory boards

Source: Jason Plautz and Amanda Peterka, E&E reporters • Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will consider a bill tomorrow that would force U.S. EPA to withdraw its approval of E15, gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol.

The committee will also vote on a bill from Environment Subcommittee Chairman Chris Stewart (R-Utah) that Republicans say would rein in bias and imbalance in EPA’s science advisory process.

This is the second time in two years the full committee has considered the E15 legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). Along with stopping the introduction of E15 in the marketplace, it would compel EPA to commission an 18-month study of its effects by the National Academy of Sciences.

The bill would bar EPA from approving E15 again until it presents results of the study to two congressional committees.

EPA has approved E15 for vehicles from model years 2001 or later, with the goal of expanding the amount of ethanol in the U.S. fuel supply. Since last summer, E15 has been sold in a few gasoline stations. It’s not approved for use in boats, snowmobiles, lawn mowers or other small-engine equipment.

Sensenbrenner argues that the agency fast-tracked E15, approving it before its effects on car engines were completely known. At a hearing earlier this year, he highlighted two studies by a car research group that found it damaged the engines of two popular cars and caused fuel system failures in others (E&E Daily, Feb. 27).

“There have been several tests and warnings highlighting E15’s harmful effects on engines and their components, but they have all been dismissed by the EPA,” Sensenbrenner said as he introduced his bill. “Therefore, we must force the EPA to stop the use of E15 fuel until the serious safety, durability, performance and environmental concerns have been addressed.”

The Science Committee last year passed the legislation, but the measure was not taken up by the full House. The legislation this year has 11 co-sponsors, all Republicans.

Biofuels groups and EPA have argued that the Department of Energy didn’t find E15 causing any engine damage and that this is sufficient to allow the fuel’s use. A federal appeals court last year dismissed a lawsuit brought by auto, oil and food groups over EPA’s decision; several of the groups have since petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Science Advisory Board

The Stewart bill targets EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which offers advice and guidance to the agency on a variety of issues including air pollution and hydraulic fracturing regulations. Republicans have long accused the panel of being slanted, saying it includes scientists who have received funding from EPA but doesn’t include enough private or industry representatives.

“Through the EPA, the Obama administration is aggressively pursuing costly regulations that impact nearly every sector of the American economy,” Stewart said. “Most of these rules are based on controversial scientific assertions and conclusions, so it is critical they be reviewed by a balanced panel of experts in an open and transparent manner. This bill directs EPA to undertake reforms to do just that.”

Stewart’s bill builds on an unsuccessful effort last year by former Science Chairman Ralph Hall (R-Texas) to revise the 1978 Environmental Research, Development and Demonstration Authorization Act, which set up the SAB process.

Stewart’s bill would tighten peer-review requirements regarding balance and independence, as well as require more disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. But it would also offer more opportunities for dissenting panelists, potentially opening up room for scientists who have industry ties.

While Democrats and EPA supporters have said there is room to improve the science advisory process, especially by bringing on a wider variety of voices, they argue that Stewart’s bill might do more harm than good.

The bill would add more opportunities for public comment, which opponents warn could slow down the advisory process. And subcommittee ranking member Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) derided draft legislation for “creating an unnecessary legal conundrum because of inconsistencies with the Federal Advisory Committee Act.”