Longtime foes use Hill review as opportunity to spar

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, June 3, 2013

Over the last several weeks, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) have asked stakeholders to weigh in on a series of white papers on the renewable fuel standard.

As is wont to happen with anything related to biofuels in the nation’s capital, the review has turned into a blame game between the oil and ethanol industries.

In their most recent competing statements to the Energy and Commerce Committee leaders, the oil industry is blaming ethanol for increased greenhouse gas emissions, while the ethanol industry is chiding the committee for not focusing on the environmental impacts of oil production.

The finger-pointing is likely only to increase as the committee embarks this summer on a series of hearings on the RFS, which mandates levels of conventional ethanol and advanced biofuel that must be blended into the nation’s motor fuel supply each year. Both industries have much at stake: The ethanol industry relies on the renewable fuel standard to create a market for its product, while the oil industry is faced with the prospect of replacing up to 15 percent of petroleum-based gasoline with biofuels.

Upton and Waxman have acknowledged the intense debate over ethanol and say their review is meant to impartially revisit the 2007 standard now that there are five years’ worth of experience and data on it. They plan to use the responses to help shape the hearings coming up in the summer.

“In some respects, the RFS has unfolded as expected, but in others not,” the white papers each say in their introductions. “It is time to undertake an assessment of the RFS.”

The most recent paper released on May 9 requests answers on the standard’s environmental effects and greenhouse gas emissions reductions (E&ENews PM, May 10). Lobbies for both the oil and ethanol industries filed responses Friday and, per usual, used them to attack each other.

In its 10-page response, oil industry trade group American Petroleum Institute wrote that the RFS has “failed to deliver the GHG, environmental and other benefits envisioned by the Energy Independence and Security Act,” the 2007 law that revised the standard to its current levels.

Relying on data from a 2011 National Academy of Sciences study, API wrote that corn-based ethanol is a higher emitter of greenhouse gases than gasoline. Although advanced biofuels have the potential to decrease emissions, API said, they have been slow to take off, and as a result, the RFS is likely to be dominated by corn ethanol for a while to come.

“One can conclude that in the absence of the RFS, it is likely that GHG emissions from the transportation sector would have been lower,” wrote Bob Greco, API’s director for downstream and industry operations.

The oil industry lobby also said that the standard has the potential to have worse air quality impacts than gasoline, as well as require higher volumes of water, among other environmental impacts.

The RFS “is a good example of ‘environmental problem shifting’ inherent in EPA’s current approach on biofuel production, and of EPA’s failure to adequately analyze these impacts relative to petroleum fuel production,” Greco wrote. “These findings continue to show that the expected environmental gains from the RFS have yet to be realized.”

The paper prompted a strong defense of the renewable fuel standard by the ethanol industry and repeated criticisms against the oil industry.

“The RFS is unquestionably reducing GHG emissions today compared to baseline petroleum,” wrote Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, in his 15-page response.

The Renewable Fuels Association cited studies that have found ethanol has reduced emissions by an average 34 percent between 2008 and 2012. Other studies, the response said, have shown that energy use at ethanol plants have fallen over that same time as producers have put in place more efficient technology.

Dinneen, one of Big Oil’s biggest critics on Capitol Hill, took to task the Energy and Commerce Committee leaders for not also including a review of the oil industry’s environmental effects.

He laid out a series of 10 questions that he said he hoped to see answered in the committee’s review. The questions cover the environmental effects of oil exploration, extraction and distribution; gasoline production, distribution and use; unconventional practices such as production from Canadian oil sands; and imported oil dependence.

The paper, he wrote, was “woefully incomplete.”

“By focusing exclusively on the environmental impacts of ethanol and other biofuels used for the RFS,” Dinneen wrote, “the Committee is missing the significant environmental and public health consequences of increased petroleum production and use in the absence of ethanol and the RFS.”