Agency, advocacy witnesses to debate ethanol, subsidies in U.S. Senate hearing

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will look at ethanol and advanced biofuels with a hearing on Wednesday, April 13, that is expected to show a rare display of bipartisanship and is likely to focus on the downsides of the domestic fuel.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Gina McCarthy, U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator; and Henry Kelly, acting head of the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division, are slated to weigh in, giving lawmakers access to all three of the agencies most heavily involved in setting and implementing federal biofuels policy.

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) are generally aligned in opposing congressional support for corn-based ethanol. Subsidies like the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC), through which the federal government will pay about $6 billion this year to ethanol blenders, are likely to come under fire.

Boxer was one of 17 senators who signed a November 2010 letter opposing the VEETC; Inhofe has previously introduced a measure, which he has said he aims to reintroduce this spring, that would let states opt out of the corn ethanol portion of the renewable fuel standard.

Biofuels have been a hot issue on the Hill over the past several months, and now is a good time for the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over ethanol and the RFS, to address the issue in more depth, said Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for Inhofe.

Recognizing that the days of generous annual tax credits for biofuel use are likely numbered, advocates have recently pushed proposals that would redirect federal support toward long-lasting infrastructure subsidies, such as loans and grants for the installation of high-ethanol fuel dispensers and a cross-country ethanol pipeline, and mandates for the production of more flex-fuel vehicles (E&E Daily, April 8).

The lineup of non-agency witnesses for Wednesday signals several of the problems lawmakers are likely to hear about.

Representatives for advanced biofuels may discuss some of the problems that have delayed successors to corn- and soy-based fuels from entering the marketplace, while a representative for groups making non-road engines is likely to talk about problems with the EPA’s push to make blends of up to 15-percent ethanol (E15) widely available. EPA recently approved E15 for use in passenger vehicles dating back to the 2001 model year, but it would be prohibited to fuel older vehicles or non-road engines with it, leading many stakeholders to question how consumers will be prevented from making potentially damaging mistakes in its use.

A representative for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which along with a broad assortment of food- and livestock-related groups has opposed ethanol use and claimed it drives up food prices, will also testify. While several studies over the past year have concluded that framing ethanol use as pitting “food versus fuel” overlooks factors with significantly more weight in both markets — namely oil prices — that framework has maintained a prominent place in public discussions of ethanol use, especially during times when food prices spike, as they have recently.

Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, April 13, at 10 a.m. in 406 Dirksen.

Witnesses: Tom Vilsack, secretary, Department of Agriculture; Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, EPA; Henry Kelly, acting assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, DOE; Michael McAdams, president, Advanced Biofuels Association; Jan Koninckx, global business director for biofuels, DuPont; Kris Kiser, executive vice president, Outdoor Power Equipment Institute; Scott Faber, vice president for federal affairs, Grocery Manufacturers Association; and Brooke Coleman, executive director, Advanced Ethanol Council.

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