Clean Calling: High-Octane Award Winner Doug Durante

2020 High-Octane Award winner Doug Durante has spent much of his 40-year career advocating and advancing policy for ethanol. Few active industry lobbyists have contributed to so many stages of biofuels policy development, from the 1970s to today.
By Tom Bryan | August 12, 2020

As Doug Durante leans back in his office chair and looks at a framed newspaper clipping on the wall, a keepsake three decades old and fading, he’s taken back to a time when corn ethanol was the favorite son of alternative energy and riding a wave of enigmatic political momentum. 

The April 1, 1990, article in The New York Times—a double-page spread inside the Sunday edition—aptly titled “The High-Octane Ethanol Lobby” shows a young Durante talking to a congressman in the Longworth House Office Building. It’s a dramatic, long-view hallway shot that frames a moment in history when ethanol was capturing attention like never before. And there was Doug, a 34-year-old journalism major from Maryland, right in the middle of it.

“It’s surreal, looking back,” says Durante, recipient of the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo’s 2020 High-Octane Award for championing ethanol interests.  “It’s hard to believe how long it’s been, and how far we’ve come.”

While Durante’s career was, in many ways, just budding when that memorable Times story ran, he had already spent a decade working on renewable fuels policy—and he’d been around the Hill even longer. Growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland, the son of a Westinghouse nuclear engineer, Durante spent much of his young life close to the capital. As a teenager, he ran manual elevators in the Capitol Building, giving him fly-on-the-wall access to the passing chatter of lawmakers and their staffers in his formative years. He attended college in North Carolina, graduating from  Elon University, before landing an internship in the office of Pennsylvania Rep. Bud Shuster who chaired a commission on transportation policy. “It was a Pennsylvania connection that got me the elevator job, and that relationship helped,” Durante says. “But the reason they hired me had more to do with the fact that I was a pretty good baseball player and they wanted me on their softball team.” 

It wouldn’t be long before Durante proved his worth, both on and off the field. In 1978, while working on Shuster’s transportation policy team, the “oil shock” hit America following the Iranian Revolution and a young Durante found himself at the center of discussions about alternative fuels, including ethanol. “Someone said, ‘Give it to the kid. Have him dig into it,’” Durante remembers. “I was basically put in the corner to figure it out, make calls and learn everything I could about ethanol, which was in its infancy.”

In 1979, as Durante continued to diligently study renewable fuels for Shuster, the U.S. levied sanctions, including an embargo on oil, against Iran in the wake of the American embassy being seized in Tehran. The tension and widespread national concern over oil supply shortages spurred Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh to suggest the creation of a commission for “fuel alcohol.” A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate backed the idea, and the National Alcohol Fuels Commission was born. “They said, ‘Do you have anyone who knows much about fuel alcohol?’” Durante recalls, “And someone said, ‘Yeah, take this guy.’ Which, of course, was me.”     

Durante found himself not just on the alcohol commission team, but running the outreach and communications programs as director of public affairs. “Marilyn Herman, who remains very involved in the industry, was heading up much of the technical work, but we had to communicate what we were doing. I was very lucky to be in the center of all of that,” Durante says. “You know, right time, right place, when all of this was getting started. It’s almost dumb luck the way it all happened. I am very fortunate.”

Durante says the alcohol commission included several “heavy hitters” of the day including Bayh, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, and freshmen Reps. Al Gore of Tennessee and Dan Glickman of Kansas. “We were able to get a lot done,” he says. “It was an exciting time to be involved with biofuels because, remember, that was at a time when everyone in the country was focused on oil supply. There were rallies and marches, even Tractorcades, and we were there, right in it.”

When the National Alcohol Fuels Commission wound down in the early ’80s under Regan-era budget cuts, Durante moved over to the DOE as a special assistant within the former Office of Alcohol Fuels. His energy department stint, while relatively short, helped him better understand the nature—and promise—of the fledgling ethanol industry, which he says “barely existed” at the time. “It was basically ADM and everyone else, a lot of small alcohol plants,” Durante says. “We’re talking farm-scale stuff. I think a 1-million-gallon plant would have been considered ambitious back then.”

It wasn’t long before the DOE’s alcohol office was also wound down, and Durante describes the years that followed—the mid-’80s—as the lost years of biofuels. “Everything just leveled off,” he says. “The marches and rallies, it all stopped. Everything died off for a while.”

Durante worked as a consultant for a stretch, collaborating with biofuels stalwarts like Fred Potter, editor of the Oxy-Fuel News and former executive vice president of Hart Energy. “Fred was not only a consulting partner, but a close friend,” Durante says. “In fact, he was the godfather of one of my daughters.” Durante also collaborated frequently with Renewable Fuels Association founder Dave Hallberg, who he credits for establishing ethanol’s early foothold on the Hill. He also credits Burl Haigwood, CFDC director of program development, who he says has been his right-hand man for the past 30 years.

By 1987, with the ethanol industry fighting not for growth but relevancy, the precursor to the 1990 Clean Air Act passed the House with a 3.7% oxygenate requirement. “That would have been E10,” Durante says, still astounded by the House bill’s passage 33 years later. “Even though it didn’t pass in the Senate, it was like, ‘Wow, we’re closer than we thought to making this happen.’”

With another attempt to get the Clean Air Act passed in 1988, Durante recalls himself, Potter, Hallberg and others discussing their shared frustration over the political inertia holding ethanol back. “It was clear that if we were going to start making things happen, we needed to get the automakers—and even some of the oil guys—working with us,” he says. “We didn’t need another ethanol group. We had the RFA. We needed to figure out who didn’t like us and how we could change that.”

Understanding that play, and with a new Clean Air Act coming, Durante formed the CFDC in 1988 with the help of key advisors and friends like Todd Sneller of the Nebraska Ethanol Board, now retired. “We weren’t trying to be an ethanol association, but I still needed a flagship ethanol guy,” Durante says. “Todd was that person. He served as chairman of the CFDC for many years and was absolutely instrumental, not just to the organization but as one of the most influential and respected people in the entire industry.” 

Within months, the membership Durante envisioned began to manifest. “Texaco was a member. Sunoco was a member. And they both sold ethanol,” he says. “We got Ford, Chrysler and General Motors to be dues-paying members. We got GM to put the first language in their owner’s manuals that they were okay with ethanol blends. Sure, they capped it at 2.7%, but it was still a huge achievement.”
Indeed, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments passed, and even more companies joined the CFDC. Renewable fuels were hot—everyone wanted a seat somewhere—but joining an ethanol association wasn’t politically practical for some companies. The orientation of the CFDC was a nice fit for those tangential players. “I look back at the early days when we had 25 companies around our board table and think, ‘Wow, that was really cool,’” Durante says. “We had oil people, auto guys, five ethanol producers, financial companies. It was very diverse, and quite a thing to be a part of.” 

Over the years, the CFDC’s membership morphed with each wave of industry change. Durante says members have come and gone over time, while the organization has remained adaptive but true to its original mission to be a conduit for companies engaging in the renewable fuels space from peripheral positions. “We were, and probably still are, perceived as a more neutral organization, which is effective for us,” Durante says. “Through it all, our core message has always been about growth and inclusivity.”
Durante credits his longtime supporters, including Sneller, Phil Madsen of Katzen Engineering and Dave VanderGriend of ICM Inc. “I’m very grateful for guys like that who have stood with me over the years,” he says, explaining the CFDC’s close support and alignment with VanderGriend’s organization, the Urban Air Initiative. “We obviously work very closely with UAI on a lot of issues.”   

VanderGriend tells Ethanol Producer Magazine that Durante always understood the importance of working with the auto industry and promoting ethanol’s clean, high-octane benefits. “The name of his organization—Clean Fuels Development Coalition—says a lot about where his head has been all along,” VanderGriend says. “Finally, the industry is taking his message to heart.”

Origins of the RFS
Durante explains that former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, widely considered to be the principal designer of the Renewable Fuels Standard, was also a key architect of the fuel provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act. “He and Bob Dole basically made that happen,” Durante says. “That’s back when people from two different parties could actually work together.”

Many of the western, high-elevation cities like Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and even Boise, Idaho, had experienced great success using ethanol blends to reduce carbon monoxide, which was primarily a wintertime pollutant. In Denver, specifically, with its infamous “brown cloud,” ethanol was credited for turning the sky blue again. Using the Denver oxy-fuel rule as a model for the wintertime provisions of the Clean Air Act, Durante says, the industry was able to effectively argue for year-round ethanol use, which was a game-changer in the sense that it provided continuous, rather than seasonal, demand.

“Daschle said, ‘If it works in the winter, it should be good in the summer. Let’s make it year-round,’” Durante recalls. “And that’s how the whole reformulated gasoline (RFG) program came about. Daschle put that amendment in—and I still have the original paperwork—that was ultimately cosponsored by Bill Richardson (then a congressman from a New Mexico district with a fledgling ethanol plant in the town of Portales). I met with Richardson … and subsequent to that conversation, we landed an amendment on the House side that matched the Daschle-Dole amendment in the Senate. That was how year-round oxygen got done.”

Durante says CFDC’s diversity was, and still is, a vital asset. In the early ’90s, as state-level pollution control commissions were looking for input and participation from independent organizations, the group’s multiplicity served it well. Because the Clean Air Act defined areas of the country as being in violation, to varying degrees, of air quality standards, they were required to create plans to regain compliance. “In the case of ozone, they looked at fuel programs and the choices were to adopt federal RFG which, importantly, required an oxygen content, or to simply lower vapor pressure, which we argued was not nearly as effective as RFG,” Durante says. “Of course, the vapor pressure option was favored by the oil guys because it was all petroleum. Adding ethanol was a loss of market share to them.”

In Phoenix, for example, the CFDC was on the negotiating committee and successfully made the technical case, along with making the performance and cost arguments, that fuels with oxygenates like ethanol were good. “We did this all over the country as states had to adopt mitigation measures,” Durante says. 

With the Clean Air Act in action—and MTBE soon to be phased out—ethanol plant construction experienced a decade-long boom. By the late 90s, however, that stage of ethanol production growth leveled off, and it became clear that a new policy vehicle was needed. “I remember being with Hallberg, Sneller and some others in Daschle’s office and talking about the limitations of the then 2% oxygenate requirement, which was essentially 5% ethanol, or about 5 billion gallons. It wasn’t enough,” Durante says. “We all agreed that what was needed was some sort of renewable requirement—and what we were talking about was basically an RFS.”  

Daschle and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana formed a powerful bipartisan team to champion an RFS. They originally floated the concept in 2002 and it eventually passed in 2005. It was so wildly successful that it was expanded in less than two years, in 2007. “It required an amendment to the Clean Air Act to eliminate the oxygen requirement,” Durante says, “but the upside of a guaranteed market—double or triple that of the RFG program—was clearly a trade worth making.” Durante would serve as an advisor on the ad hoc Senate committee that created the RFS in 2005 and RFS2 in 2007. 

Advocate Communicator
While Durante’s professional legacy is indelibly linked to biofuels policy development, his ancillary roles as a communicator and industry advisor are important. In addition to serving on numerous state advisory committees, Durante has also had various federal-level board seats, including on the Federal Biomass Advisory Committee, the Governors’ Ethanol Coalition Biomass Advisory Committee, the U.S. EPA Clean Fuels Advisory Committee, and the DOE’s Business Roundtable Group.

He has also authored a broad array of educational tools through the CFDC’s Ethanol Across America Campaign, which at one time enjoyed the advisory of Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar. He and his team authored the Ethanol Fact Book, produced the Ethanol Minute Radio Program, The Flex-Fuel Awareness Program, guidebooks on ethanol and biodiesel plants, the Blender Pump Handbook, and an ongoing series of issue briefs (like the one featured in our page-36 feature, “Reality Check”).

“We were really the first to come out with an Ethanol Fact Book and, say, ‘Look, here are the issues,’” Durante says. “Net energy, food versus fuel, water usage—we put it all in there, so the facts were clear.”

Durante and his team also built preliminary feasibility studies for would-be ethanol plants in the mid-2000s, assisting developers with business plans and marketing strategies. “Helping people understand the issues so they could make good decisions is what it’s always been about,” Durante says. “Whether it’s a fact book, an issue brief or project assistance, helping people make informed decisions is what drives us.” 

Next Big Change
As the ethanol industry continues to fight for E15 market growth, and against the rampant abuse of small refinery exemptions, Durante believes bold decisions are needed to ensure ethanol has a clear path to future growth. “We are at a definite crossroads,” he says. “I’m obviously a huge supporter of the RFS, and have believed in it wholeheartedly, but I also wonder if it’s time to accept that we’ve run our course with it.”

Durante says it’s clear that the biofuels industry needs some kind of assurance, some mechanism for growth, to prevent the oil industry from “stamping it out” in the possibility of an RFS sunset. “There has to be some sense of security that, if you make the product, you can sell it,” he says. “That’s why the oxy-fuel programs and the RFS were so important. It made financing possible. You could go to the bank with that assurance.”

Policy-dependent industries, however, can be both defined and limited by programs built to foster and support them. “It can be an albatross,” Durante says. “It can totally define your limits as an industry. Just look at the time, effort and money we’ve spent defending, year after year after year, the 15-billion-gallon market ethanol was entitled to under the RFS. At some point, you really have to ask yourself if it is worth it when you could be using that time and money to build a market for something like E30.”

Durante says “the forces working against” biofuels are more committed than ever to getting rid of the RFS, and he believes the EPA is inclined to sunset the law. “I am terribly afraid that, if they set the next set of renewable volume obligations, or RVOs, based on this year’s numbers, and for who knows how long, we’re in real trouble,” he says. “If we’re looking at a reset in the 10-billion-gallon range, and given all the uncertainty we have right now, you have to wonder if there is a better way forward, a different path.”

Durante says the CFDC is open to new plans that ensure industry growth. He was severely disappointed that the Trump administration did not take the opportunity last year to grant a Reid vapor pressure (RVP) waiver for all ethanol blends, not just E15, but E20, E30 and beyond. “They knew that once you get past E15, the RVP just keeps going down, so there was no reason not to allow a blanket RVP waiver,” he says. “Those senseless regulations are really our primary obstacle to growth. If we had an unblocked path, we could maybe stop relying completely on the on the RFS—which is essentially a government quota and, let’s be honest, more of a celling than a floor.”

In the same light, Durante says, the Trump administration squandered an opportunity to get more octane into American fuel with the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles (SAFE) rule, which set corporate average fuel economy and emission standards through 2026. “We could have easily increased octane and, at the same time, achieved some serious fuel-economy increases,” Durante says. “All they had to do is raise the base octane. The auto industry would have been on board. Believe me, I know the automakers well. If they knew there would be an unlimited amount of ethanol available, they would make cars to use it. But you can’t do it the other way around. They’re not going to put high-octane engine vehicles on the road that require premium if there’s not enough ethanol and ethanol infrastructure out there. The oil guys would raise the price to anything they want.”

Durante says change is always scary, but the industry has to be prepared for it. “We need to figure out some hybrid policy approach—almost like ag supports, with a backstop—so we know we can make ethanol without losing our shirts. And at the same time, we’d have to be willing to give up some parts of the current policy in exchange for an unfettered pathway to the future.

“Before I turn it in and go fishing, I would like to see the ethanol industry leverage the most powerful thing it has—it’s voice. We have to be in lockstep on our plan, like we have been with E15. Just like each thing we did in the past provided a segue to something else, we’re at that point again. We’re at the precipice. So, we need to control the message and shape what’s next.”

Author: Tom Bryan