Panel seeks answers on EPA approval of E15

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, February 25, 2013

As critics of federal biofuels policy ramp up their efforts on and off the Hill, a congressional hearing this week will delve into U.S. EPA’s decision to increase the level of ethanol allowed in gasoline.

While opponents of EPA’s approval of E15 welcome the hearing, it is raising eyebrows in the ethanol industry. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment, has invited vocal critics of EPA’s E15 decision to testify, including representatives from the American Motorcyclist Association and AAA, the auto club.

The goal of the hearing, according to a committee aide, is to examine the “scientific, technical and consumer impacts” of EPA’s approval of E15, or gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol. The hearing will also look at the impact of E15 on car engines and fuel infrastructure, as well as what further research on E15 is needed, the aide said.

The organizations opposing EPA’s approval have raised concerns about engine damage and vehicles unapproved for E15 filling up with the fuel (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2012).

“It is clear that millions of Americans are unfamiliar with E15, which means there is a strong possibility that many motorists may improperly fill up using this gasoline and damage their vehicle,” AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet said in a statement late last year. “Bringing E15 to the market without adequate safeguards does not responsibly meet the needs of consumers.”

Michael Frohlich, a spokesman for the ethanol trade group Growth Energy, said the subcommittee leadership neglected to invite any biofuel advocates, ethanol producers, government officials or experts directly involved in E15 testing.

“I think everybody has a place at the table, if it’s going to be a fair hearing that is set up and designed to have actual discovery happen,” Frohlich said. “But what they’re doing is stacking it with critics to be a dog and pony show. It’s political posturing and political theater at its very best.”

In 2010, EPA approved E15 for use in cars with model years 2007 or later, and then in January 2011 approved the fuel for cars from 2001 to 2006. The hearing comes just days after several oil and food groups petitioned the Supreme Court to take up their challenge to EPA’s decisions, which a federal appeals court dismissed last year due to lack of legal standing (Greenwire, Feb. 21).

Industry observers expect the hearing tomorrow to largely focus on studies linking E15 to engine and fuel system damage done by the Coordinating Research Council, an oil-industry-funded vehicle research organization. Mike Leister, a former CRC chairman, is expected to testify.

According to opponents, the studies show that EPA was premature in approving the fuel for the market, despite extensive testing by the agency and the Department of Energy.

Also likely to come up at the hearing is the blendwall, the term commonly used to describe the saturation of 10 percent of the nation’s fuel supply, and the legality of the Clean Air Act waivers that EPA used to approve E15.

The hearing comes amid a flurry of criticism over the broader renewable fuel standard, which sets annual targets for traditional ethanol and advanced biofuels. Several more congressional hearings are expected this year on various aspects of the standard, and opponents have vowed to undertake an all-out effort for its repeal or reform.

“Although Energy and Commerce will be the lead committee on RFS reform due to its jurisdiction over the [Clean Air Act], there is such a pent-up level of demand among non-[Energy and Commerce] members to begin to explore these issues that hearings like this are to be expected,” said Stephen Brown, vice president for federal affairs at Tesoro Corp. “Literally scores of offices on multiple committees are regularly reaching out to myriad groups supporting RFS reform asking what they can do to get involved.”

Ethanol organizations have previously been critical of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee — which Frohlich quips is the “science fiction committee” — for similar hearings. The committee includes one of Congress’ most vocal ethanol opponents, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who last week introduced legislation to scale back EPA’s annual advanced biofuel targets.