Unusual allies fight renewable fuel standard

Humanitarians, environmentalists, farmers’ advocates and refiners on Monday came together to demand changes to a renewable fuel mandate they said is wiping out wetlands and driving food costs higher.

The assembled groups are asking Congress to revise — or completely repeal — the eight-year-old renewable fuel standard that requires refiners to blend steadily increasing amounts of ethanol and other alternatives — up to 36 billion gallons in 2022 — into the nation’s transportation fuel supply.

“It’s pretty emblematic of the problem with this whole renewable fuel standard that you have such a disparate group of people all saying that … the RFS is unrealistic and impractical to the point that it should be repealed by Congress,” said Charlie Drevna, the head of American Fuel and Petrochemicals Manufacturers.

Drevna’s refiners group was joined by ActionAid, the Environmental Working Group, FarmEcon, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and Taxpayers for Common Sense in arguing for changes to the renewable fuel standard on Monday. The groups plan to make their pitch to lawmakers and their aides on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

The groups are part of an increasingly vigorous push against the RFS, led by the oil industry as it hits the so-called “blend wall,” the practical ceiling on how much biofuel can be blended into the nation’s gasoline, given a 10 percent limit on the amount of ethanol in the most commonly available transportation fuel.

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., last month spiked the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 requirement under the RFS for refiners to blend in 8.65 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels made from grasses, solid waste and other non-edible material, after concluding it was unrealistic. Because virtually no cellulosic biofuels have been available for sale, refiners have had to buy waiver credits from the EPA — at a rate of 78 cents per gallon — to comply with the mandate.

The EPA has since proposed establishing a 14 million gallon target for cellulosic biofuel in 2013.

Biofuels backers say the RFS was always designed to drive investments in ethanol and other renewable fuels. And they say enough cellulosic biofuels are expected to be available this year to meet the 14 million gallon threshold.

But environmentalists argue that the renewable fuel standard has spurred farmers to convert 23 million acres of wetlands and grasslands for the production of corn for ethanol — an area the size of Indiana.

“Corn ethanol has not only been a disaster for consumers, the hungry and for most farmers, it has also been a disaster for the environment,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. “We have lost more wetlands and grasslands in the last four years than we have in the last 40 years.”

With more land and corn devoted to ethanol, prices have gone up for groceries and corn used for animal feed. Tom Elam, with FarmEcon, noted that since 2008, eight poultry farmers have filed for bankruptcy.

And Kristin Sundell, with ActionAid, stressed that 15 percent of the world’s corn supply has been diverted to fuel, driving up food prices for all, including countries such as Guatemala, where corn is a diet staple. For Guatemala alone, the extra cost in corn in 2011 was about $28 million, about the same amount the U.S. sent in food aid to the country, Sundell said.

Jim Currie, with the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said he is proposing legislation to tackle the mandate — he wouldn’t specify if the draft bill would completely repeal the RFS — and circulating it on Capitol Hill.

But it is unclear what lawmakers might take a lead role pushing the issue.

On Monday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Works Committee, said the RFS needed “reform.” But, she signaled, that might cause some bruised egos on Capitol Hill.

“When we’re talking about corn-based ethanol being used for fuel that puts pressure on the price of corn,” she said.

“Let’s not be afraid to admit we might need to reform it, we might need to revamp it, we might need to make it more technology-neutral,” Murkowski added. “That’s not saying we have failed. It might be acknowledging we didn’t appreciate all of the consequences that might be attached to this.”