Oil lobby turns focus to EPA in ethanol fight

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The American Petroleum Institute (API) is focusing on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its fight to reduce the ethanol blending mandate, conceding that there’s little short-term hope in congressional action.

Bob Greco, API’s director of downstream operations, said his group is still pushing for legislative changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that requires oil refiners to mix ethanol, biodiesel and other renewables into their fuels. But with elections approaching, it is trying instead to convince the EPA to keep the mandated volumes low.

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“I think we have a narrow, closing window to do anything this year,” Greco told reporters Wednesday.

“That’s why, I think, much of the focus is really on the regulatory rulemaking right now, because that is something that will have an impact this year,” he said. “So that’s why I think at least from API’s perspective, so much of our focus right now is on better understanding where’s EPA’s going and trying to influence the regulatory decision.”

API invited representatives from a range of advocacy groups to its offices Wednesday to talk about their different objections to the RFS. For example, the American Motorcyclist Association opposes it because high ethanol concentrations can harm small engines, while the National Chicken Council believes that the demand for corn-based ethanol has increased prices for feed stock.

The EPA must go through a rulemaking process each year to set the required blending volumes. The agency proposed last year to reduce the ethanol mandate for 2014 and keep the biodiesel level unchanged, decisions that renewable fuel advocates decried, but opponents cheered.

API wants the EPA to finalize the blending levels it proposed last year.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) wants the corn-based ethanol requirement scrapped completely, because the fuel has higher carbon dioxide emissions than the conventional gasoline it replaces, said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the group.

“The single most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today is to implement the [standard] as they proposed, and to not increase the amount of corn ethanol that would ultimately be blended into gasoline,” Faber said. EWG estimated that reducing the level as EPA proposed would cut carbon dioxide emissions by about 3 million metric tons, the equivalent of taking 580,000 cars off the road for a year.

“If the administration were to increase the amount of corn ethanol, they would be blatantly contradicting their own climate policy and doing more to create momentum for reform in this Congress, especially in the lame duck, than anything API or EWG could ever do,” Faber said.

Scott Vinson, president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, was optimistic that the RFS could be reformed or repealed, especially if Republicans take control of the Senate.

“At least in the Republican Party, there’s this tea party strain, where there’s less enthusiasm for government mandates picking winners and losers than maybe there has been been in the past,” he said. “And I think that helps.”

Greco said a majority of members of the House have endorsed some sort of change to the RFS.

“So there’s a critical mass in Congress to affect change. How that change is initiated, I think is yet to be determined,” he said. “But ultimately, we’re in this for the long haul.”