Senators spar with EPA over ethanol mandate

Getty Images

Democrats and Republicans raised conflicting concerns over the federal ethanol mandate with an Obama administration regulator on Wednesday.

At a Senate Environment and Public Works hearing, Chairman James InhofeJames InhofeGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election A dozen senators call for crackdown on Chinese steel Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (R-Okla.) called the Renewable Fuel Standard “unstable.” He said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “has hurt every party involved, from corn producers to refiners,” with its management of the mandate, which sets the amount of biofuels that oil refiners are required to blend into their gasoline supplies.

Inhofe, a long-time foe of the RFS, said Congress needs to step in and reform the mandate before the EPA takes over full management of the program in 2022.

“It is time for Congress to revisit the RFS,” he said. “In fact, Congress must revisit the RFS by 2022 [when the congressional mandate for the program runs out] ... or U.S. fuel policy will be left in the hands of the EPA. I think we can all agree no one wants that to happen.”

Republicans, oil interests and some environmentalists oppose the RFS, saying it raises fuel and food prices and risks damaging engines that can’t handle high-ethanol fuel, claims the ethanol industry dismisses. Some lawmakers have proposed efforts to overhaul or end the RFS, something its supporters have opposed.

“Legislative changes to the RFS are not needed, and I will do everything in my power to stop any legislation to modify or undermine this landmark law,” Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerCalifornia House Republicans facing tougher headwinds House and Senate water bills face billion difference Boxer, Feinstein endorse Kamala Harris in two-Dem Senate race MORE (D-Calif.), the ranking members of the committee, said Wednesday. “We should focus on making sure the law we have on the books works.”

Even so, she raised questions about the EPA’s administration of the program, including a lengthy delay in the announcement of new blending requirements (three years of which were announced last fall) and the fact that the EPA has mandated ethanol levels below those established by Congress.

Boxer asked the EPA’s Janet McCabe if she disagreed with the biofuel industry’s claim that it's able to produce more ethanol than the EPA mandated last November. McCabe, the acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said she did, and she defended the levels announced then.

“For 2016, the standards we have identified provide for significant increases over past levels,” she said.

“Our review of the information that we had about what could be reasonably and ambitiously achieved led us to conclude that the statutory volumes simply weren’t achievable, if we were doing our jobs in a responsible way,” McCabe added.

Wednesday’s RFS hearing kicked off another public relations fight over the ethanol mandate. The American Council for Capital Formation launched a seven-figure television ad campaign in Washington Wednesday noting increased political opposition to the rule and questioning its impact on the environment.

“After a decade of damaging our environment and harming consumers, the evidence is overwhelmingly and provably clear that Washington’s big government ethanol experiment has failed,” ACCF executive vice president George David Banks said in a statement.

But an industry group defended ethanol fuel Wednesday.

“The fact is that rigorous testing and unbiased studies from the government and other industries have repeatedly demonstrated that ethanol and other biofuels are a less expensive, cleaner and better performing alternative to oil,” said Tom Buis, the co-chair of Growth Energy.