House passes biofuels, conservation bill in partisan split

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News • Posted: Monday, June 20, 2022

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) discussing agriculture and biofuels legislation this morning. Francis Chung/E&E News

House lawmakers approved legislation today to boost biofuels, expand farmland conservation and encourage more U.S. production of fertilizer, but Republicans dismissed the Democratic majority’s claims that the package could help farmers and consumers grappling with inflation.

The bill, H.R. 7606, called the “Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act,” would lift seasonal restrictions on the sale of fuel that’s 15 percent ethanol, pay for more equipment to distribute and store higher-ethanol fuel, and provide additional help to farmers for managing manure on livestock operations. Approved on a largely partisan vote of 221-204, it combines a handful of bills, some of which had passed the Agriculture Committee in bipartisan fashion.

The package would provide incentives to expand production of fertilizer in the United States, which sponsors said could avert the types of price spikes farmers are now seeing. And it would create a task force on food supply chains, with the aim of tackling future scarcity and inflation.

House Agriculture Chair David Scott (D-Ga.) highlighted his effort to wrap Republican-led bills into the overall package, citing “extremely important bipartisan participation.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) touted the legislation during her weekly press conference.

But Republican lawmakers rejected that assessment, noting that Democrats had included a meatpacking-related bill that divided the committee along partisan lines.

Agriculture ranking member Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania said the package wouldn’t ease inflation in fuel and other goods, even though GOP lawmakers have co-sponsored some of the provisions on E15, conservation and grants to encourage expanded livestock and poultry processing.

“This bill does nothing in the immediate to lower food and fuel prices,” Thompson said.

A major obstacle to Republican support was Democrats’ inclusion of a bill by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) to create a special federal investigator to dig into alleged anti-competitive behavior by meatpacking companies.

Thompson and other Republican lawmakers cast that provision as an attack on agriculture — although it has support from the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, Spanberger said — and as unnecessary, given the Justice Department’s ongoing inquiry of its own.

The livestock measure has the support of some Republicans in the Senate, but House GOP members today charged Democrats with trying to score purely political points by adding it to other bills that are widely supported by the minority party.

Agriculture policy groups were split on the bill, with the National Farmers Union in support and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association opposed. The American Farm Bureau Federation didn’t take sides, but Thompson said the group had expressed reservations about some provisions.

The expansion of E15 has been a high priority for the biofuels industry. The Trump administration lifted the summertime restriction — tied to air pollution regulations — but was overruled by a federal court that said EPA didn’t have the authority to do so.

The Biden administration has lifted the limits temporarily, citing possible relief from high fuel prices, but a more permanent approach would require legislation or creative regulatory moves by EPA (E&E News PM, April 29).

Biofuel groups praised the E15 measure, saying it would give motorists a less expensive alternative to gasoline. Most fuel sold at gas stations is 10 percent ethanol.

“As oil prices surge around the world, higher blends of ethanol offer a lower-cost, lower-emission option for hardworking families across America,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, a biofuel industry group.

The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, in contrast, said biofuel mandates are making gasoline more expensive, adding as much as 20 cents to the wholesale price of a gallon of gas.

The bill’s conservation provisions would expand help farmers receive through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to install manure management systems. The bill also would expand assistance for “precision agriculture,” in which farmers use higher technology to pinpoint fertilizer application, for instance.

Overall, said Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), “the whole goal here is to make life a little easier for the people we represent.”

The House approved two amendments on voice votes. One, by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) would provide grants and loans to encourage more U.S. fertiizer production. Thompson said it wouldn’t provide relief for several years, if enacted.

The other amendment, from Spanberger, would create supply chain resource centers through the Agriculture Department to help small and medium-sized agricultural businesses.

Although the vote was mainly along party lines, there were outliers. Five Democrats opposed it, including Peter Welch of Vermont, a critic of biofuels. Seven Republicans voted yes, including three from Iowa — Randy Feenstra, Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks.

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