Scott Walker’s stance on ethanol prompts concerns

Source: By Jason Stein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Posted: Monday, May 4, 2015

Madison — As likely presidential candidate Scott Walker has shifted his position on a federal ethanol mandate, some of the fuel’s skeptics at home in Wisconsin are wary.

At an Iowa roundup for White House hopefuls in March, the Wisconsin governor pledged to support the federal Renewable Fuel Standard for the time being, adopting a stance well-suited to a state that’s covered in cornfields.

But talk of Walker’s shift has raised questions for Dave Charlebois, the executive director of ABATE of Wisconsin, a motorcycling advocacy group best known for its successful opposition to a helmet requirement in the state.

Charlebois has ridden his Harley-Davidson with Walker, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast who loves to talk about his pastime on the stump, and normally the governor has backed ABATE, he said. But Walker’s position on ethanol could become an exception.

“I would only hope that if he did shift it, I would hope he would have more knowledge than he previously had,” Charlebois said of Walker’s stance on ethanol.

Ethanol mandates divide Wisconsin, which has a big presence of corn farmers and biofuel makers who support the mandates but also has dairy farmers who worry about corn prices and manufacturers of small engines that can’t burn some fuels with higher ethanol blends. This divide can cut across the usual, easy to predict lines of today’s partisan politics.

At the Iowa Ag Summit, Walker signaled that he favors keeping the RFS for now and phasing it out in the future — without saying over what period. The RFS program requires transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel, which in practice is usually ethanol made from corn.

Walker’s presidential campaign in waiting, Our American Revival, didn’t respond to questions about the RFS and the related issue of E15, a fuel blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline.

Some manufacturers, especially Briggs & Stratton — based in Walker’s hometown of Wauwatosa — remain concerned about the federal RFS and opposed to E15 because of the possible damage to smaller air-cooled engines.

“We really believe that some kind of reform or repeal is necessary,” company spokeswoman Laura Timm said of RFS.

Meanwhile, the convenience store chain Kum & Go said this week that it will begin making E15 available at 65 locations across seven Midwestern states, including Iowa.

An official with Harley-Davidson didn’t respond to a request for comment. But groups like the American Motorcyclist Association are opposing the spread of E15 because it’s not approved for use in motorcycles.

Other skeptics of E15 include Dan Ariens, president and CEO of Ariens Co., a Brillion-based manufacturer of outdoor power equipment including snow throwers and garden tractors. Walker appointed Ariens to be the vice chairman, second only to Walker himself, of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the state’s flagship jobs agency.

Advocates for renewables see a need for an even greater use of biofuels. They say E15 is the most tested fuel to come to market.

“More competition in our motor fuel supply and more options at the pump are good for gas prices, good for America’s economy, and good for our energy security,” said Majda Sarkic, a spokeswoman for America’s Renewable Future, a pro-ethanol group that sponsored the Iowa event where Walker shifted his stance on the fuel.

“American consumers are savvy, and already know how to make the right choices for their engines — the same way they do now by choosing between regular and diesel gas, or choosing among higher and lower octane fuels, for example,” Sarkic said.

By federal law, consumers are prohibited from using gasoline with more than 10% ethanol in older vehicles or small engines. Fuel dispensers selling E15 have a warning label to not use it with those engines.

But the price for the fuel blend can be lower — cost is a key factor for consumers — and the Association for Consumer Research found that warning labels are less effective when applied to products that people use frequently and are comfortable with, such as gasoline pumps.

Both Briggs & Stratton and ABATE support a bill by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Menomonee Falls Republican, that would revoke the current government approval for E15 until the fuel undergoes more testing.

But not everyone in Wisconsin shares their perspective. Corn, after all, is Wisconsin’s biggest crop and the state is also home to nine ethanol plants.

Only last year, groups like the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance criticized Walker for not joining with Midwestern governors to urge the federal government to support ethanol use and not cut the fuel additive requirement in gasoline.