Senate bills would eliminate corn ethanol mandate, reform RFS

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, December 13, 2013

A bipartisan pair of senators today introduced legislation to eliminate the corn ethanol mandate, while a separate duo continues work on a bill to overhaul the entire renewable fuel standard.

The bill by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) would remove the standard’s top-line mandate for renewable fuels, thereby eliminating the corn ethanol mandate and keeping in place the standard’s requirements for advanced biofuels.

Feinstein and Coburn said in a statement that they support the goal of renewable fuels but that corn ethanol has made both fuel and food more expensive.

“I strongly support requiring a shift to low-carbon advanced biofuel, including biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol and other revolutionary fuels,” Feinstein said. “But a corn ethanol mandate is simply bad policy.”

The pair have been working on the bill for more than a month but were holding off on introducing it until they obtained more co-sponsors (E&E Daily, Oct. 30). The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.).

The measure is supported by the prepared-food industry, livestock groups, oil and gas producers, engine manufacturers, boaters, hunger relief organizations and environmental groups.

Coburn called the legislation a “long-overdue step.”

“Eliminating this mandate will let market forces, rather than political and parochial forces, determine how to diversify fuel supplies in an ever-changing marketplace,” he said.

Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and David Vitter (R-La.) said yesterday that they were also preparing a bill that would call for aggressive reductions in the corn ethanol portion of the standard, continue incentives for advanced biofuels and address safety concerns raised about adding higher blends of ethanol into gasoline.

While the senators have deep concerns about the standard’s impact on food prices and motor safety, they said their goal wasn’t to eliminate the mandate but to make it more “workable.”

“Our goal is to mitigate the concerns of fuel safety for all consumers and restore market fairness for traditional corn users and ensure steady growth and opportunity for truly advanced biofuels from feedstocks that don’t compromise our food security,” Cardin said.

The senators unveiled the plans for the bill at a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on which Vitter serves as ranking member. At the hearing, senators grilled EPA’s director of transportation and air quality over the agency’s recent proposal to scale back next year’s ethanol and advanced biofuel targets for the first time in the 2007 standard’s history (E&E Daily, Dec. 12).

At the hearing, supporters of the renewable fuel standard said they worried that the agency was pulling the rug out from the advanced biofuels industry, while opponents charged that the agency wasn’t going far enough to address what they believe are fatal flaws with the nation’s ethanol mandate.

Cardin, who introduced legislation last Congress to tie the conventional ethanol mandate to corn production, said that he is mostly concerned about the standard’s impact on the poultry industry, which dominates his state’s agricultural industry. The poultry industry has said that the increased demand for ethanol caused by the standard has raised corn prices past the breaking point.

The standard “needs to be better balanced for energy security, food security and motor safety,” the Maryland senator said, adding that he remains a big supporter of advanced biofuels that do not use corn starch as an input.

Vitter, who has long been a critic of the RFS, said he believes the standard is causing “real damage and dislocation” to several sectors of the economy and the American consumer. He applauded EPA’s rollback of the mandate for next year but said he is concerned that the action is a “temporary Band-Aid.”

“I believe it’s really time to admit that the RFS is fundamentally flawed and limps along year after year, mostly benefiting a small sector of our economy committed to government mandates,” Vitter said.

Biofuel group calls bill ‘monumentally stupid’

Any RFS reform bill, though, will have a tough sell in the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the standard.

Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has been a strong supporter of the RFS and yesterday vowed to protect the standard as long as she holds the committee gavel.

“I just think overall, let’s not turn our back on a way to make sure we can become more energy independent and have a better environment in the long run,” she said.

Boxer also reiterated a concern that some environmental groups have raised about legislation reforming the RFS: Because the RFS is contained within the Clean Air Act, such legislation would open up the act itself up to revision.

While Vitter said he would support revisiting the Clean Air Act and doing away with the RFS, he said that is not the intended goal of the Vitter-Cardin bill.

“That’s not only not the goal, but I will oppose amendments that do that,” Vitter said. “And so it’s just going to be about that sort of important reform to this program, which I think is necessary.”

While renewable fuels advocates say they are concerned about EPA’s recent proposal, they also continue to oppose any legislation that attempts to reform or repeal the standard, worried that such an effort would open up the standard to wholesale gutting.

Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, called the Feinstein-Coburn bill “monumentally stupid.”

“Doing damage to the corn ethanol industry because you don’t like corn, and you think you can do that and not harm the second generation, the good stuff that you supposedly like, is just incredibly naive,” Dinneen said. “I have few fears that something like that would ever get traction.”

A separate Senate measure to repeal the RFS by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), another member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, currently has 18 co-sponsors.