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Senate Hearing Sheds Light on Shifting Positions on the RFS

Tuesday, February 23, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jay Corn
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The following post discussing the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was originally published online by the Center for Regulatory Solutions and appears here with permission. 

This week’s Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works oversight hearing on the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) could prove uncomfortable for a number of Democratic members who have had a tough time dealing with the environmental impacts of the corn ethanol mandate. A review of the positions held by members of the committee over the past decade reveals surprising results with many of the most prominent members flipping their positions over the years.

For example, the ranking member of the Senate EPW Committee, Senator Barbara Boxer, once an avid foe of the corn ethanol mandate, now vigorously defends it, despite a Center for Regulatory Solutions (CRS) report showing that the mandate imposes a $42 billion fuel tax on her home state of California. Meanwhile, Senator Carper (D-DE), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, went from being an ethanol promoter to raising the alarm about corn ethanol’s impact on climate change. Perhaps most interesting is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), now in the race for President. He has also flipped his position in time for the presidential campaign, moving from an opponent of ethanol to a vocal supporter, while an economic analysis conducted by CRS last fall found that ethanol costs the New England economy $20 billion.

Meanwhile, outside of Washington, the environmental case against corn ethanol has only grown stronger. Environmental activist Bill McKibben from Vermont has said, “Ethanol is the worst idea of all time.” Former Vice-President and green leader Al Gore called ethanol a “mistake.” The Sierra Club and Environmental Working Group have said for years that the RFS is causing greater harm to the environment than gasoline. A recent report by researchers from the University of Tennessee, among others, found that ethanol’s lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions actually exceed those of gasoline when land use changes associated with its production are properly measured. The study also found that ethanol’s lifecycle emissions of other pollutants – including those that contribute to smog – greatly exceed those of gasoline.

Even academics in Iowa, the top ethanol-producing state in the country, are warning that the RFS creates a perverse incentive for farmers to convert land to corn fields and thereby increase soil erosion and fertilizer runoff. As the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Corn is a very water- and chemical-intensive crop. Ordinarily, farmers rotate crops annually to avoid soil exhaustion, but high corn prices encourage them to plant corn in the same fields year after year. The only way to make this work is to pour on more fertilizers, which seep into waterways and create algae blooms that suck up all the oxygen and kill everything else.” Last summer a toxic algal bloom shut down two-thirds, or 636 miles, of the Ohio River. Those fertilizers and nitrates are eventually swept into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the second largest human-caused dead zone – an area where algae consumes the oxygen needed to support life – in the world.

Democrats’ Shifting Positions on Corn Ethanol Revealed

  • Senator Barbara Boxer (CA): Senator Boxer, the Committee’s ranking member, has undergone a dramatic evolution on ethanol over the last 14 years, shifting from absolute opposition to the fuel additive to becoming one of its staunchest supporters outside of the Corn Belt. In 2002, Boxer refused to endorse a deal that would significantly boost demand for corn-derived ethanol, arguing it would create an ethanol mandate (which we now have) that could cause gasoline shortages and price spikes. That same year she vehemently opposed a renewable fuel mandate in the Senate energy bill. Though she voted for the 2007 energy bill that significantly expanded the RFS, she signed a letter in 2010 rejecting ethanol subsidies, calling them “fiscally indefensible.” But beginning in 2013 Boxer reversed her position and fully embraced ethanol, incorrectly stating that it would reduce carbon pollution. In 2014 and 2015 she denounced EPA’s plans to set ethanol targets below the Congressionally-mandated levels. The Senator has not yet accounted for what changed her mind on the biofuel.
  • Senator Tom Carper (DE): Senator Carper voted for the 2007 energy bill that expanded the RFS, but by March 2009 he questioned whether biofuel volume mandates he supported were increasing too quickly. But two months later he was praising the EPA for increasing the supply of renewable fuels. By 2011 he was back to warning that corn ethanol was competing with our fuel supply and degrading our air quality. Carper voted later that year to end the corn ethanol subsidy, calling the move “long overdue.” Responding to a constituent’s question in July of 2011, Carper said, “The corn ethanol tax credit costs us billions of dollars a year, that’s money we shouldn’t be spending...The idea of using kernels of corn for ethanol I don’t think makes a whole lot of sense anymore…” Senator Carper has been consistent in his opposition to corn ethanol ever since 2011, expressing support for advanced biofuels while warning: “…we cannot ignore the unintended consequences of increasing our biofuel mandates.”
  • Senator Ben Cardin (MD): Senator Cardin, a resolute friend of the poultry industry, has long been wary of corn ethanol. In 2007, he urged the Bush administration “to carefully evaluate and respond to unintended public health and safety risks that could result from the increased use of ethanol as a ‘general purpose’ transportation fuel,” though he would vote for the RFS expansion a few days later. In 2011, he criticized the EPA’s approval for E15 fuels for older cars and introduced two bills and an amendment to repeal the $6 billion ethanol “blenders tax credit.” He took to the Senate floor multiple times that year to decry ethanol:

    “The ethanol subsidies are not needed. The market is there. More damaging, it is hurting our economy. I have the honor of representing the people of Maryland and the Delmarva Peninsula. The poultry industry is suffering because of the ethanol subsidies. It is costing more to produce poultry, making the industry less competitive. We can save and create jobs by eliminating the ethanol subsidy, which will help us in balancing the budget."

    In 2012 he called for “an end to the preferential treatment of corn-based ethanol,” and introduced the RFS Flexibility Act to tie the corn ethanol mandate to available U.S. corn supplies. Senator Cardin has continued to speak out against the RFS and ethanol, raising concerns that the biofuel “poses significant environmental concerns.”
  • Senator Bernie Sanders (VT): Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont wasn’t a fan of corn ethanol until he decided to run for president and needed to woo Iowa voters. His record shows that he urged President Bush to “carefully evaluate and respond to unintended public health and safety risks that could result from the increased use of ethanol as a ‘general purpose’ transportation fuel.” Though he voted for the 2007 expansion of the RFS, he voted in 2011 to take down ethanol subsidies, saying at the time: “Subsidizing the ethanol industry not only is a great expenditure of taxpayer dollars, but it also has a negative impact on farmers and consumers in Vermont and around the world in terms of higher feed prices and higher prices for food.” But just four years later, as a presidential candidate stumping in Iowa, Sanders said, “Iowa is one of the leaders in the country in wind and biofuels. So, I support the Renewable Fuel Standard.” “We have to be supportive of that effort – and take every step that we could, and in every way we can, including the growth of the biofuels industry,” he told Iowa Public Radio last year.
  • Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI): Senator Whitehouse, known for his weekly speeches on climate change from the Senate floor, is inexplicably in favor of ethanol. But he wasn’t always. He voted for the 2007 RFS expansion, but in 2011 he said, “The corn ethanol industry, much like Big Oil, does not need taxpayer subsidies to turn a profit. The production process also poses serious environmental risks.” In 2014 he pressed further, warning that corn-based ethanol “poses significant environmental concerns.” Most recently, though, Senator Whitehouse had shifted his position, asking the EPA to return its biofuels targets to the Congressionally-mandated levels. Senator Whitehouse is trying to have it both ways on the ethanol issue and it will be interesting to see how he positions himself at this week’s hearing.
  • Senator Jeff Merkley (OR): Though Senator Merkley wasn’t around to vote for the 2007 RFS expansion, he began his Senate tenure with a report attacking corn ethanol because of the “substantial fossil fuel inputs” it requires. In the five years since then he has evolved on the issue, signing a letter to the EPA advocating for the agency to return to the Congressionally-mandated ethanol targets established in 2007. It remains to be seen whether Merkley will continue supporting corn ethanol at this week’s hearing or if he will return to his initial opposition to the biofuel.
  • Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY): Senator Gillibrand has been a steady voice against ethanol for nearly a decade. Though she voted for the 2007 energy bill in the House, she was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters New York in 2008 for her pledge to “push for locally grown biofuels as alternatives to gas and corn-ethanol.” When asked about corn ethanol by a constituent in 2011, Gillibrand told him “there should be more effort put into making energy out of sources that are not food crops.” The Senator called for alternatives to corn ethanol in 2012, noting that “attempts to use corn-based ethanol as energy have only raised prices for farmers and consumers.”
  • Senator Cory Booker (NJ): The hearing will be Senator Booker’s opportunity to voice his position on ethanol. Aside from a single retweet mocking ethanol subsidies, the freshman senator has yet to make his full views on the issue known. Will he stick to his environmental guns or will he opt to boost his prospects as a vice-presidential contender and side with Big Corn?
  • Senator Ed Markey (MA): Senator Markey appears to have followed the lead of Secretary John Kerry, whom he replaced in the Senate, in his curiously consistent support for corn ethanol, despite representing a New England state. As a U.S. Representative Markey voted for the 2007 RFS expansion and became a more vocal supporter of the biofuel after he assumed Sec. Kerry’s seat in the Senate. He opposed decreasing ethanol volume requirements in 2014 and signed a letter in 2015 asking the EPA to return the ethanol targets to their Congressionally-mandated levels. Most recently he attacked Republicans for what he described as their “goal…to roll back all of the measures that will help us reduce our oil consumption and decrease carbon pollution, including fuel economy standards, the renewable fuel standard and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.” We can expect to see the Senator from Massachusetts continue his legacy of supporting this costly and environmentally dubious program.

What it all Means

Why are Democratic members of the committee so inconsistent in their views towards corn ethanol? Perhaps this week’s rarely scheduled EPW oversight hearing on the RFS will provide some answers. But given the widespread, bipartisan opposition from across the country, it’s time for Congress to end this failed experiment which has comes at a high cost on small businesses for no gain.


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