Dingell: Use EPA rulemaking process to correct RFS shortcomings

Critics of the expanded federal RFS should focus on working with the US EPA as it develops rules instead of trying to rewrite or repeal the law, a leading US House committee chairman said on May 6.

Nick Snow
Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 8 -- Critics of the expanded federal Renewable Fuels Standard should focus on working with the US Environmental Protection Agency as it develops rules instead of trying to rewrite or repeal the law, a leading US House committee chairman said on May 6.

"I would observe that the ink had hardly dried on this new law when the clamoring began to alter the RFS, and these requests for congressional intervention continue, said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) as the committee's Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee opened a hearing on RFS issues, implementation, and opportunities. "In my view, amendments to the law at this time would be unwise and could lead to unintended consequences," he said.

"I believe that all stakeholders would be well-advised to consult with EPA as it develops the rule and try to address any concerns within that forum. If unresolved issues still remain after the rule is finalized, there may be need for congressional action. To act in advance of that date, however, undermines important processes," he said.

But the committee's ranking minority member, Joe Barton (R-Tex.), said the renewable fuel mandate which became law as part of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) has made food more expensive by diverting vast acreage to fuel production.

"I believe we need to excise corn-based fuel from the renewable fuel mandate altogether. Instead, we should focus on cellulosic ethanol, coal-to-liquid, butanol, and compressed natural gas. All these fuels would alleviate our dependence on unreliable foreign energy without squeezing our food supply," he said.

Revisit mandates
Two witnesses agreed with Barton. "Although there are many factors contributing to the sharp increase in US and global food prices (including increasing global food demand, export and other restrictions, adverse weather in some countries, commodity speculation, and higher energy prices), a significant new factor—and the only factor affecting food and feed prices that is under the control of Congress—is the food-to-fuel mandates and subsidies diverting food into fuel production," said Scott Faber, vice-president for federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

National Petrochemical & Refiners Association Pres. Charles T. Drevna said Congress should not waste time debating whether there is a larger or small correlation between a greatly expanded US renewable fuels mandate and a growing global fuel crisis. "Energy policy based on mandates is not a recipe for success. There is no free market if every gallon of biofuels, including those that do not exist, are mandated. Mandates distort markets and result in stifled competition and innovation," he said.

But others said the expanded RFS should be given more time to work. "Evidence shows that ethanol is not the primary factor in modest food increases, saves the American consumer money at the pump, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and is being produced more efficiently, more economically, and more sustainably every day," said National Corn Growers Association Chief Executive Rick Tolman.

Renewable Fuels Association Pres. Bob Dineen acknowledged that fuel-grade ethanol has been harshly criticized for allegedly driving food prices higher. "However, the evidence does not support that conclusion. A host of reasons play a role in driving food prices higher including, for example, record oil prices, soaring global demand for commodities from oil to grains, poor weather conditions, a collapsing dollar, and restrictive agricultural policies around the world," he said.

'Biofuels bridge'
Randy Kramer, president of KL Process Design Group in Rapid City, SD, called corn-based ethanol "the only large volume, biofuels bridge to the 2012 cellulose ethanol goal." He said, "We must protect this bridge as a strategic component to allow companies like ours to improve cellulose technology, and we take exception to the misrepresentations by the media, special interest groups and the United Nations who cling to the baseless notion that ethanol is somehow displacing agricultural resources and linking the displacement of corn from food to fuel."

EPA has been working since EISA was signed into law to review its provisions and develop regulations to implement the new RFS program, according to Robert J. Meyers, principal deputy assistant administration in the agency's air and radiation office. He said while the RFS program, which was established under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, provides a foundation for developing new regulations, the expanded mandates in EISA contain elements that make the program more complex.

"In this new undertaking, the agency is following much of the same approach used in developing the first RFS program," Meyers said in a written statement. "This includes obtaining critical input from stakeholders early and throughout the rulemaking process. Using a collaborative approach will help the agency gather important information quickly and facilitate EPA's development and promulgation of regulations to implement the legislative provisions enacted by Congress," he said.

Dingell said EPA "did a commendable job in implementing the first RFS and was widely praised for the balanced way it pursued consensus, consistent with the law." He conceded that the expanded RFS is more aggressive as it "attempts to both accelerate deployment of traditional ethanol and hasten the arrival of cellulosic biofuels, while balancing the need for EPA to grant waivers should unforeseen events arise."

Dingell said, "Whether the act's goals will be realized remains to be seen. In the meantime, this committee must be vigilant in its oversight of the program to see how closer, or far, we are to achieving these goals."

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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