House hearing witnesses bash RFS, call for repeal of E15

By Kris Bevill | November 03, 2011

It was déjà vu all over again on Nov. 2 as representatives of the ethanol industry were forced to watch a House of Representatives Energy and Environment Subcommittee hearing on motor fuel standards from the sidelines. Earlier this year, the subcommittee held a hearing to discuss the scientific testing of E15, but failed to invite anyone from the ethanol industry to testify. On Nov. 2, the subcommittee again convened a panel to address the “Conflicts and Unintended Consequences of Motor Fuel Standards,” but declined to include any ethanol industry representatives. The petroleum industry was well-represented, however, as were several other witnesses who delivered remarks opposing the implementation of E15 and the RFS.

Committee Chairman Andy Harris, R-Md., opened the hearing by making clear his disapproval of the U.S. EPA and government policies to support biofuels and renewable energy. “Whether through government hand-outs, as in the case of Solyndra, or heavy-handed mandates as in the case of the RFS [renewable fuel standard], the picking of energy winners and losers by government fiat is an exercise in futility destined to fail miserably,” he said. He asserted that the EPA “continuously fails to do its homework” and said its approval of E15 based on one U.S. DOE study is an example of that failure.

Harris’s comments were echoed by Brendan Williams, senior director of advocacy for the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. He testified that the E15 waiver approval puts refiners and consumers at risk for potential misfueling issues and urged Congress to repeal the EPA’s partial waiver for E15. Williams further stated that the concerns related to E15 provide an example of even greater issues associated with the RFS in general. “If the existing RFS program is carried out without changes, it will create great market and economic uncertainty, which will in turn threaten additional refining investment and job growth and harm consumers,” he stated. “Given the aggressive schedule of the mandate and the limits of what fuel and vehicle infrastructure can handle, our nation will soon face a practical limit [as to the amount of biofuels] that can be pushed into the fuel supply without causing significant consumer disruption.” He added that E85 could help to alleviate pressure on the blendwall, but said it has yet to become widely accepted by consumers and does not appear to be a viable compliance option for the RFS. “No small engines are designed for E85 and only a small fraction of the fleet of cars is designed for the fuel,” he stated. “E85 requires an expensive investment at retail stations because of the corrosive nature of ethanol. This issue is yet another in a panoply of problems associated with the current structure of the RFS.”

Margo Oge, the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality director, came to the defense of the RFS in her testimony, stating that when the policy is fully implemented it could displace 13.6 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel in 2022. “We also estimate that the fully implemented program would decrease oil import expenditures by $41.5 billion, result in additional energy security benefits of $2.6 billion, and reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by an average annualized rate of 138 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year,” she stated.

Oge also noted that the EPA has not registered E15 as a new gasoline under the Clean Air Act, so it cannot yet be legally sold into the marketplace. According to her testimony, ethanol industry representatives submitted emissions and health effects information related to E15 earlier this year, to be used in completing registration applications, and they are now in the process of developing additional information for that purpose. “Once complete, the information will be helpful to fuel producers in submitting registration applications for E15,” she stated. “Until such time as EPA approves a complete registration application, E15 may not be lawfully sold for use in model year 2001 and newer light-duty motor vehicles.”

The recently released National Academy of Sciences report, “Renewable Fuel Standard: Potential Economic and Environmental Effects of U.S. Biofuel Policy,” was referenced frequently during the hearing as proof of the policy’s ineffectiveness. However, Ingrid Burke, co-chair of the committee who authored the report, offered extensive written testimony on the conclusions reached in the report, often stating that the end results were inconclusive. The effect of 36 billion gallons of biofuels on GHG emissions compared to the energy-equivalent amount of petroleum is “uncertain,” she stated. Also, the effects of increased biofuel production on soil and biodiversity are likely to vary depending upon which practices and feedstock are used. “Thus, the effects of achieving RFS2 on those two environmental variables cannot be readily quantified or qualified largely because of the uncertainty of the future,” she stated. Nonetheless, the committee majority appeared only to be interested in one of the items mentioned in Burke’s testimony, releasing a statement that repeated a comment made by her suggesting that increased ethanol use could have a negative impact on air quality due to higher concentrations of certain pollutants.

Meanwhile, Oge pointed out during the question and answer session of the hearing that ethanol plays a vital role in the transportation fuels sector and cannot be completely omitted from the supply. “Ethanol improves the octane of gasoline, so it’s a very important product in gasoline,” she said. “Ethanol reduces the amount of benzene in aromatics so you end up with somewhat less toxic substances in the gasoline make-up.”

Ethanol groups spoke out in advance of the hearing in an attempt to make their voices heard despite being left off of the witness list. Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, submitted a letter to committee leaders expressing his disappointment in the lop-sided hearing and pointing out the importance of ethanol in reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs. Growth Energy, the group responsible for initiating the E15 waiver request, said the hearing contained a “chorus of critics” who used the hearing as an excuse to promote and protect their own special interests. “We need serious discussion about a national energy policy, including domestically produced alternatives like ethanol and next-generation biofuels,” CEO Tom Buis stated. “Instead, we are seeing special favors tossed like candy to Big Oil, which doesn’t need any more sweeteners considering the billions in taxpayer giveaways they’re already getting.”