In a major defeat for the ethanol industry, senators of both parties joined forces late last week to sink a controversial bill that would’ve allowed gasoline with 15 percent ethanol to be sold year-round.
The measure had become a flash point on Capitol Hill, dividing both Republicans and Democrats — with senators from ethanol-producing states supporting the bill — while also uniting diverse groups in opposition, such as environmentalists, boaters and motorcyclists. The legislation also represented a key opportunity for the ethanol sector, as the expansion of E15 sales would’ve been a financial boon and, to at least some degree, a marketplace defeat for the oil industry.
The bill was co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, and Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana. Despite that bipartisan support, the legislation in the end was unable to muster enough support in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Committee leaders announced Friday that there would be no action on the bill before the August recess, though it’s unclear whether it’ll be resurrected sometime in the fall.
Ethanol sector leaders bemoaned the delay but said the battle for E15 isn’t finished.
“We will continue to work with our bipartisan sponsors to enact this bill to provide drivers across the country cleaner fuel options year-round that are better for the environment and save Americans money every time they fill up the gas tank,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, which represents ethanol producers.
E15, a less common counterpart to the more widely available E10, is currently available in 29 states, but federal law restricts its sale between June and September.
The rules were put in place to limit ozone which causes smog during hot months. Supporters of the current regulatory structure say E15 causes far more smog than the more widely used E10, though ethanol proponents dispute that claim and argue that the technology is such that E15 isn’t a threat to the air.
E10 is available nationwide and year-round thanks to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, a program established in 2007 that requires increased amounts of ethanol to be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply. Each year, the program consistently falls short of the blend levels initially called for by Congress in the 2007 bill.
Due to those underlying structural problems with the RFS, critics say, it’s foolish to pass new legislation allowing even more ethanol to enter the fuel market.
“With all the problems with the RFS it would be irresponsible of the Congress to give them this waiver without addressing the larger issues with the program,” Sen. James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said on the Senate floor last week.
Highlighting the diversity among opponents of the RFS and E15 sales, Mr. Inhofe’s views were echoed last week by former Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who during his time in Washington was one of the loudest environmental voices in Congress.
Like other ethanol detractors, Mr. Waxman said the next generation of biofuels hasn’t come to pass as expected, and the industry remains reliant on corn-based ethanol to meet its federal mandates.
“The 2007 RFS, which I supported, had admirable goals. In particular, it sought to stimulate production of non-food-based, ultra-low carbon advanced and cellulosic fuels. However … these technologies have failed to significantly materialize” he said in a letter to Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat and ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Passage of [the E15 bill], a top priority of the ethanol lobby, would be a step in the wrong direction and would weaken wider reform efforts” of the RFS.