Op-Ed: So-called ‘Dem’ ethanol bill has it all wrong

Source: By Doug Sombke, South Dakota Farmers Union • Posted: Friday, March 16, 2018

As a card carrying Democrat, I resent the broad brush generalization of the Hill’s March 8 headline, “Dem Bill Would Overhaul Ethanol Mandate.”

To imply to readers that the measure by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) is some type of party-wide position is misleading. A congressman from tiny Vermont and a senator from oil country like New Mexico does not a party make. That aside, the basic premise of their legislation, as well as the headline, is flawed. It is not the first time it has been brought to attention of The Hill that there is no such thing as an ethanol mandate.

But first this has nothing to with Democrats or Republicans and their support of biofuels. The first Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) introduced by then-Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, which it still enjoys. So lets not make this a Dems versus R’s issue — we have enough division in our Congress.

Secondly, it bears repeating there is no such thing as an ethanol mandate. The RFS requirement is that the petroleum industry include in their product slate a modest percentage of renewable fuels to offset the toxic compounds and debilitating impacts of their fuels. The RFS could be met with biogas, renewable electricity, butanol, or any number of other fuels and combinations. Ethanol is one option available to them and they choose that option because they make money off it and it is efficient and practical. The petroleum industry has quietly taken an ownership position in the ethanol industry with billions of gallons owned by major players like Valero, Koch, and Marathon. Why? Again, it is because it is a quality product that allows them to meet their renewable requirements while extending gasoline supplies and providing them financial benefits.

As for the premise of the legislation — that it is an environmental failure, well that too is simply wrong. Seeing former House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in this debate is disturbing. Mr. Waxman led the House’s effort in the 1990 Clean Air Act to reduce the toxic compounds in gasoline used for octane, a role ethanol has assumed and in the process reduced tons of toxic emissions and saved lives.

But the heart of the problem is the fact that so many members of Congress have simply accepted as fact that there is some magic ethanol lying in wait that will save the planet, as long as it is not corn. There is a reason some of the major oil companies like BP and Shell abandoned plans for so-called advanced ethanol– it didn’t work. Maybe someday it will, but corn ethanol does and the authors of the legislation would be well served to do their homework if they really want greenhouse gas reductions.

The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab produces the Gold Standard of carbon models called the Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model. Along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several university studies it confirms that the best available science shows corn is an extraordinary carbon sink. The greenhouse gas and climate change benefits are now recognized as equal if not superior to sugar cane and cellulosic ethanol.

And given that cellulosic ethanol for the most part doesn’t exist despite favored treatment and subsidies, corn ethanol takes on an even more important role. Energy and fertilizer inputs are down while corn yields are up, all using less land than decades ago.

The petroleum industry is pulling out all the stops to protect their market share as biofuels have succeeded beyond what they can control. And much these oil industry funded efforts to discredit ethanol are diversions so we do not focus on the cancer causing toxic composition of the gasoline they force on consumers.

This legislation is ill informed and the authors should be embarrassed. Their efforts would serve the public better if they worked to get more ethanol in to our fuels, not less.

Doug Sombke is president of South Dakota Farmers Union.