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Corn State Lawmakers Get Ethanol Hearing

Sen. Deb Fischer’s legislation would ease restrictions on the sale of ethanol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sen. Deb Fischer’s legislation would ease restrictions on the sale of ethanol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Bowing to pressure from corn state lawmakers, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso allowed a hearing on legislation that would ease restrictions on the sale of gasoline blended with at least 15 percent ethanol, a measure he opposes.

The bill (S 517) sponsored by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., would order the EPA to waive its rule prohibiting the sale of gasoline containing 15 percent corn-based ethanol, also known as E15, during the summer months. The prohibition was based on findings that tied the mixture to smog-causing emissions during warm weather.

Sales of E15 under the Renewable Fuel Standard are restricted between June 1 and Sept. 15 to reduce ozone emissions and smog during the peak summer driving season. While gasoline blended with 10 percent ethanol is widely available, E15 is only sold in 29 states. The EPA approved the use of E15 gasoline in 2011 for light duty trucks and cars of model years 2001 and newer, even as the auto industry and other groups objected that the fuel would be corrosive for some vehicles.

“In Wyoming, folks want fuel with less, not more, ethanol,” Barrasso said at the Wednesday hearing. “They worry [about] what fuel with more ethanol will do to their car engines, and who will be stuck paying the bill.”

EPW ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., took no position on the legislation, saying instead he wanted to gain a better understanding of its impact on corn production and the environment.

“I want to make sure that passing this legislation will not increase ozone pollution,” Carper said, adding that he also wanted to ensure the bill would not restrict states’ ability to regulate the kinds of gasoline sold within their boundaries.

Environmentalists, like the Clean Air Task Force, oppose the regulation, warning of the potential for increased emissions from E15. Jonathan Lewis, senior counsel at the Clean Air Task Force, told lawmakers he was also concerned about E15’s potential impact on habitat protection as more ranch lands and wetlands could be converted to grow corn and soy beans to meet the increased demand for ethanol.

But for corn-growing communities that have been the largest beneficiaries of the Renewable Fuel Standard — which sets minimum volumes of biofuels to be blended into the nation’s transportation fuels — an increase in ethanol in gasoline means a boon for business and local economies.

The bill has bipartisan support, including from Democrat Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who said it would solve a “regulatory burden,” and Iowa Republican Joni Ernst.

“Removing this unnecessary impediment for retailers and consumers alike is a crucial step towards expanded acceptance of biofuels nationwide and will help pave the way for advanced biofuels,” Ernst said.

Industry backers of the legislation, including the Advanced Biofuels Business Council and the Renewable Fuels Association, argue that E15 is cheaper and that the auto industry has failed to demonstrate its damage to vehicles.

“S 517 essentially cures a regulatory glitch,” Advanced Biofuels Business Council Executive Director Brooke Coleman told lawmakers at the hearing, adding that the restrictions discourage the use of a cheaper gasoline option.

Mike Lorenz, executive vice president of Sheetz Inc., a chain of gas stations and convenience stores, told lawmakers that the restrictions limit consumer choices and add costs to retailers who have to change pump labels twice a year.

But the bill found no support from the committee’s top two Republicans both of whom represent some of the nation’s largest oil producers, Wyoming and Oklahoma, and tend to back the petroleum industry, which opposes the legislation.

“This bill provides another win for ethanol at the expense of other forms of energy,” said Republican James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, a vocal opponent of the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Without the support of Barrasso and Inhofe, it is unlikely the measure will get any traction beyond that hearing. Carper told reporters he does not sense an “eagerness to have a markup.”

Despite his objection to the measure, Barrasso agreed to the hearing in exchange for corn state lawmakers’ support for a Congressional Review Act resolution (H J Res 36) to nullify Obama administration methane regulations. Those lawmakers used the ethanol issue as a bargaining chip at a time when support for the resolution to kill the methane rule looked shaky.

Even after the resolution was defeated in May, Barrasso told CQ that he intended to keep his word on the E15 bill.

“No one should be surprised that I don’t support S 517,” Barrasso said in his opening remarks on Wednesday. “But S 517 deserves a full and fair hearing before this committee.”

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