Dinneen calls House hearing on E15 scientific tests a witch hunt

By Kris Bevill | July 08, 2011

It may not have exactly been a witch hunt, but there were moments during a July 7 House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing where it would have been difficult to discern what the hearing was for without reading its title. The witness list for “Hitting the Ethanol Blend Wall: Examining the Science on E15,” was stacked heavily on the anti-ethanol side and included representatives of the poultry industry, the petroleum industry, small engine groups and environmental groups. Only two of those witnesses carried titles to indicate they might have the scientific backgrounds necessary to discuss the hearing’s topic. The U.S. EPA, the agency which approved the E15 waiver, was represented by its Office of Transportation and Air Quality Director, Margo Oge. The only witness remotely representing the ethanol industry was Steven Burke, president and CEO of the Biofuels Center of North Carolina.

Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris, R-Md., warned at the start of the hearing that its purpose was not to pick winners or losers or to determine whether ethanol is good or bad. He then proceeded to lambaste corn-based ethanol, blaming it for driving up the cost of feed for chicken producers and forcing a prominent Maryland-based poultry company to file for bankruptcy in June. He heralded East Coast gas stations for making “good, old-fashioned gasoline” available for boat owners such as himself and said the EPA’s partial approval for E15 use in vehicles was based on weak science. But in response to criticism from a fellow committee member on the absence of a U.S. DOE representative to testify on the scientific testing used to evaluate E15, Harris replied that the DOE’s presence was not necessary because the hearing was meant to explore the EPA’s use of the science.

In her testimony, Oge stood by the DOE’s testing of E15, stating “we believe that the waiver record is extensive and strong.” She reminded the committee members that the EPA’s approval of E15 does not mean that it will be required to be used by any motorist. She also stressed that several steps need to be completed before E15 can enter the marketplace, and noted that renewable fuel producers have yet to complete a registration application for the fuel.

Ethanol policy remained an underlying topic of the hearing. National Chicken Council President Mike Brown used a portion of his testimony to protest the newly reached Senate agreement to dial back ethanol tax credits in exchange for infrastructure support. “Moving from a tax credit for blenders to a subsidy to build infrastructure is simply dressing up ethanol policy in another dress and is not a compromise,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session, several subcommittee members posed ethanol policy-related questions to the EPA director, prompting an exasperated Oge to remind the representatives that she was there to discuss scientific testing, not policy. “I’m a public servant, not a political appointee,” she said. “I don’t make the laws, Congress does. Congress passed a law, the president signed it. We’re implementing the law. As public servants, that’s all we can do, and we have to use the best science for the decision we’re making. I feel pretty strongly that the administrator made the best scientific case for this waiver decision. I will not comment on policies for ethanol.”

Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen issued a statement prior to the hearing calling it “a congressionally-sanctioned witch hunt for those with an axe to grind against farmers and ethanol producers.” Dinneen said the E15 testing conducted by the DOE was the most strenuous fuel testing program ever conducted by the federal government. “The ethanol industry is ready to work through concerns, valid or otherwise, expressed by automakers and fuel retailers about a new fuel being approved for retail, but exercises like this hearing that only serve to sharpen rhetorical spears do nothing to help find common sense solutions,” he stated. “If this is the game that some in Congress choose to play, the ethanol industry will not stand idly by and allow ethanol to be scapegoated for everything from poor automotive engineering to food prices to America’s current budget crisis. We would welcome a dialogue with automakers about any concerns they may have.”

Growth Energy, the group responsible for filing the E15 waiver petition, also denounced the hearing as being biased against ethanol, calling it “the most stacked hearing ever on ethanol.” CEO Tom Buis indicated that most of the witnesses are opposed to ethanol in order to protect their own interests and are unqualified to discuss scientific testing of the fuel. “Having the chicken council as an expert witness on the science of E15 makes about as much sense as having Colonel Sanders as a witness on nuclear proliferation,” he stated. “The hearing is an obvious attempt to inject politics into a decision made by EPA based on science and the most extensive vehicle testing ever. In the future, I would hope this subcommittee holds a hearing on the safety of blow-out protectors in offshore drilling and oil pipeline safety. Two major oil spills in a year certainly warrants the attention of Congress.”