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With RFS reform bills, Congressmen intend to preserve market for ethanol-free fuel

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Photo by J.C. Burns.

While ethanol advocates claim that a pair of recently introduced bills aimed at reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard will dismantle the program responsible for countrywide distribution of ethanol-blended fuels, backers of the bills argue they simply intend to fix a policy that has become “a well-intended flop.”

Dubbed the GREENER Fuels Act (Growing Renewable Energy through Existing and New Environmentally Responsible Fuels Act), the pair of bills – S.2519, introduced by New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, and H.R.5212, introduced by Vermont Representative Peter Welch – aim to cap the total amount of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline at 9.7 percent and to phase out corn as a source of ethanol for blending into fuel and replace it with cellulosic waste materials.

According to a statement from Udall’s office, doing so would curb farm expansion that has resulted directly from the RFS, a program that he said has already “delivered as intended for the conventional ethanol industry, which is now mature and well-established.”

Welch – who has personally experienced the drawbacks of ethanol-blended fuels when a chainsaw of his died –  similarly said that the RFS has so far failed to live up to its promise of delivering advanced biofuels, something he said his bill would do.

Specifically, the bill would begin to reduce the amount of corn-based ethanol blended into fuel (currently at its limit of 15 billion gallons) in 2023 and entirely eliminate corn-based ethanol from fuel by 2030. It would reduce that amount both by total volume obligations as well as by capping the percentage of ethanol blended into the nation’s fuel supply, “ensuring we remain below the blend wall while preserving a small market for E0 gasoline,” according to a fact sheet Udall and Welch issued to support the bills.

The bills would also put a halt to further distribution of E15 or approval of mid-level blended fuels until the completion of a study of the impacts of fuels greater than E10 on the environment and emissions.

As reported in the 2018 RFS Final Volume Requirements that the Environmental Protection Agency published late last year, the 15 billion gallon limit on conventional – that is, corn-based – ethanol biofuels has already been met, but the 288 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol falls well below the 7 billion gallon target set in the Renewable Fuel Act a decade ago. The total amount of ethanol blended into the nation’s fuel supply sits at about 10.67 percent.

While the EPA does not differentiate how many gallons of E0, E10, E15, and E85 should be produced – only the total amount of ethanol and its sources – it estimated that the market for ethanol-free fuel dropped from 500 700 million gallons in 2015 to 500 million gallons in 2016, and anticipated that demand would only top out at 200 million gallons in 2017.

According to Ethanol Producer Magazine, the bills would “dismantle” the RFS. It quoted the National Corn Growers Association as saying the bills would “kill our most successful American renewable energy program.” Bob Dinneen, the president of the Renewable Fuels Association, has said the bills would “throw the program into reverse.”

On the other hand, the pair of bills have the support of the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation as well as backing from former California Representative Henry Waxman, who chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

At least three bills in the current session of the House of Representatives aim to curtail the amount of ethanol in gasoline. One, H.R.1314, would repeal the RFS outright while the other two, H.R.119 and H.R.1315, would effectively cap the amount of ethanol in the fuel supply at 10 percent. Welch signed on a cosponsor of the latter bill. All three remain in committee.

S.2519 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works while H.R.5212 has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the House Committee on Natural Resources, and the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.