Strange bedfellows unite for Hill fight over renewable fuels policy

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A strange-bedfellow coalition of environmentalists, hunger advocates, oil refiners and boat manufacturers is taking to Capitol Hill to push for reform or repeal of the renewable fuel standard.

The groups were scheduled to hold briefings this morning for both the House and Senate to share their concerns with the standard, which sets production levels for ethanol and advanced biofuels each year. In a conference call yesterday, they said they planned to bring up a number of arguments against the RFS, including that ethanol raises food prices and damages the insides of cars at high levels of use.

“Really, we’re just trying to at this point bring our concerns forward to Congress to let them know that there’s a broad spectrum of organizations who have concerns,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Different organizations have sort of their answers, but what we wanted to at least at the first step to get Congress to understand that first there is a problem, and then we can move forward from there.”

The coalition also includes the Environmental Working Group, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), ActionAid and the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Thomas Elam, an Indiana-based farm economist, is representing the livestock industry’s concerns.

The renewable fuel standard is emerging as one of the biggest energy issues on Capitol Hill this year. The oil industry, represented by AFPM and the American Petroleum Institute, has thrown its weight into seeking repeal. Other groups want more incremental changes, such as tying the ethanol mandates to actual corn yield.

U.S. EPA on Thursday added fuel to the fire when it proposed aggressive targets for cellulosic biofuel production (E&ENews PM, Jan. 31).

While the groups involved are not a formal coalition, their disparate nature is likely to attract attention on Capitol Hill.

“We’re coming at it from a lot of different points of view and from a lot of different directions, but we all think it’s a bad thing,” said Jim Currie, legislative director at the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

While the groups have complained about the renewable fuel standard for years, Currie said they believe the time is right for a big push for congressional action. He highlighted a recent federal court decision to deny an appeal by many of the same groups to overturn EPA’s recent decision to allow an expanded level of ethanol in gasoline.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen judiciously from there, but we think that legislation is the way to go,” Currie said.

The coalition almost immediately drew criticism from the biofuels industry, which has accused it of recycling old arguments.

“I am not surprised by the persistent smear tactics used by Big Oil and its special interest groups,” said Tom Buis, CEO of ethanol trade group Growth Energy. The groups “trotted out the same old talking points that have been disproven time and again. The bottom line is that homegrown American renewable energy provides consumers with a choice and savings, cutting into the bottom line of oil companies, who will do anything to maintain their monopoly of the liquid fuels market.”

The industry has formed its own formal coalition of RFS supporters, Fuels America, that includes ethanol trade groups, advanced biofuels proponents, agricultural organizations and national security interests.

Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have already signaled they will hold hearings on the standard this year. Yesterday, the coalition of RFS opponents also expressed interest in engaging the Senate, where opponents of the RFS have been less aggressive in pushing for changes.

The groups said they welcomed an energy plan released yesterday by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that calls for reforming the standard (Greenwire, Feb. 4).

Currie said his group has been circulating draft legislation, but the other groups did not commit to any specific plans. The coalition emphasized that it does not believe the issue is a partisan one.

“We don’t care if you have an ‘R,’ a ‘D’ or an ‘I’ on your sweatshirt,” said Charles Drevna, president of American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. “This is a problem that is pervasive and needs to be addressed and needs to be addressed now.”