Defending All Fronts

Early attacks on ethanol policy underscore new challenges ahead
By Kris Bevill | March 10, 2011

Ethanol industry representatives knew the extension of the blenders credit and ethanol import tariff would be areas of contention this congressional year. They were likely also prepared for a battle over some of the aspects related to the implementation of E15. But the immediate and forceful attacks delivered by members of Congress in the early weeks of the session, challenging the U.S. EPA’s authority to approve E15 and the USDA’s ability to assist in blender pump installations, appeared to be unanticipated by the industry and have served to indicate just how challenging this year could truly be.

Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis told members of his group this much during his State of the Organization speech delivered March 3 at Growth Energy’s second annual leadership conference in Las Vegas. “Thanks to a pair of amendments adopted by the House of Representatives as part of the Continuing Resolution, the ethanol industry has a new set of challenges,” he said.

The House Continuing Resolution, which passed by a vote of 235-189 on Feb. 19, contained an amendment proposed by Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla., which would prevent the EPA from implementing E15 for the remainder of the year. It also included an amendment proposed by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., that would stop payments to USDA employees working on blender pump installation plans and would also not allow the EPA to funnel any of its funds into blender pump installations. On March 2, Congress passed a two-week funding bill that did not include the ethanol-related amendments, but Buis sees the reprieve as a temporary. “We are already working with the Senate to ensure these provisions are stripped from the final legislation,” he told Growth Energy members. “We will face these challenges again as Congress debates long-term federal funding legislation.”

In a Feb. 25 letter sent to every senator, a coalition of ethanol supporters including the American Coalition for Ethanol, the American Farm Bureau Federation, Growth Energy, the Renewable Fuels Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Farmers Union and the National Sorghum Producers, urged them to oppose any measure that would prevent the EPA from implementing E15. “Such a prohibition would only contribute to our nation’s reliance on foreign sources of oil,” the letter stated. “Extensive testing has been done on E15, and it has been found to be a safe and effective fuel for use in the vehicles approved in the waiver. There has been no evidence that would indicate problems in any vehicle regardless of vintage.”

The renewable fuel standard was also in jeopardy early in the session through Congressional attempts to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from stationary sources. Draft legislation floated in the House in early February sought to prohibit the EPA from enforcing any regulation concerning GHG emissions, but EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson warned that it would also prevent the EPA from establishing renewable fuel volumes as required under the renewable fuel standard beginning in 2012. The agency would also not be allowed to approve new types of renewable fuels. A bill unveiled in both the House and Senate on March 3 corrected that action and exempts the renewable fuel standard from being affected by the legislation.

Buis attributed the new Congressional challenges to ethanol’s image problem. “Our critics have spent millions of dollars to define us in a negative light,” he said. He called for the industry to join together to engage their representatives with discussions about the benefits of ethanol and said he looks forward to the challenges ahead. “It’s a rough life in Washington right now, but we’re going to win,” he said.

The USDA appears unfazed so far by the recent political attacks on ethanol and vows to continue working to advance the domestic biofuels industry. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said during a recent speech that “now is not the time to take the foot off the gas” in terms of support for renewable fuels and announced plans to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition to encourage the continued development of biofuels. 

—Kris Bevill