House Republicans spar with Obama admin officials on alternate fuels

Source: Jason Plautz, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, July 23, 2012

House Republicans on Wednesday criticized the Obama administration on its alternative fuel efforts and urged federal agencies to consider clean coal, natural gas and other fuels as part of a suite of fuel choices.

But a trio of administration officials told a House panel that the administration is making every effort to integrate all fuels into the renewable mix with the goal of weaning the transportation sector off imported petroleum and cutting costs.

The remarks came at an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing featuring testimony from officials from U.S. EPA, the Energy Information Administration and the Department of Energy.

The hearing followed a similar one last week that gathered industry input on biofuels and other alternative vehicles. Yesterday’s was the 26th in a series of committee hearings on the GOP’s American Energy Initiative.

Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said he was alarmed that clean coal was not part of President Obama’s energy campaign — even though coal is in fact listed on Obama’s campaign website — and said the administration’s actions did not always align with an “all of the above” strategy. And Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) added that if the administration was considering integrating more ethanol into the fuel mix, it should also consider clean coal and natural gas because ethanol would not generate a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Margo Oge, EPA’s director of transportation and air quality, responded that the administration had used a variety of strategies, such as fuel economy standards and a renewable fuel standard, to wean the country off petroleum without dictating a fuel. She described EPA’s “supportive role” in implementing the standards with the goal of reducing reliance on foreign oil and the environmental impacts of transportation.

Oge specifically defended Obama’s push to strengthen fuel economy standards, proposing a 54.5 mpg target by 2025 in a rule that will be finalized this summer. The standards, she said, would save consumers on fuel costs and promote alternative technologies, including electric vehicles.

And DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency Kathleen Hogan said the department was also making significant progress in research on electric vehicles and hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles, although House members expressed skepticism about sales and mass production.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) prodded witnesses on perceived low electric-vehicle sales, asking the administration witnesses why “consumers don’t know as much as you do about what’s good for them.”

As in last week’s hearing, Republicans also used the chance to tee off on the renewable fuel standard, which they deem a government mandate that is not working. Oge said that although production of cellulosic ethanol has been disappointing, she was confident that it would reach scale soon and that the biofuels targets would be met.

In response to a question about the possibility of reducing an ethanol mandate in response to fears of a corn shortage, Oge said EPA was in talks with the Department of Agriculture and would reach a solution.

Panel compared to Nero fiddling

House Democrats, meanwhile, blasted the majority for holding yet another hearing on alternative fuels and urged the committee to hold one focusing specifically on climate change, which they said was the underlying problem.

Subcommittee ranking member Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) compared the committee to Nero fiddling while Rome burned, saying that America was “literally burning” under extreme heat and forest fire risk.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the full committee, also used his opening statement to call for a climate change hearing and said the committee’s previous 25 hearings on the energy initiatives had been “disconnected from reality” by ignoring the impact of energy on climate change.

But Whitfield, after Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) also chimed in with her support, said the committee had held “a multitude” of hearings on climate change and expected to see many more.