After a year battling over the airwaves and strategizing behind closed doors, the legions of lobbyists fighting over a federal biofuels mandate will finally get the chance to present their arguments to Congress during a two-day House hearing starting Tuesday.
The eight-year-old renewable-fuels standard requires increasingly large amounts of biofuels—mainly corn-produced—each year to be blended with gasoline. Since last summer’s historic drought that sent corn prices soaring, the policy has come under intense scrutiny by Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike.
Congress has held three other hearings to address the mandate. But lobbyists say this week’s two-day session before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee is critical because the panel will likely take the lead on writing any legislation reforming or repealing the policy.
“I do believe this is the first real hearing where the rubber is going to meet the road,” said Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, an organization that represents the refineries that are required to blend the ethanol with gasoline. “This hearing is critical,” added Drevna, who will testify against the policy Tuesday.
In all, 16 witnesses will testify. The hearing is important not just for what is said during the hours of testimony—much of which will be scripted and expected—but also for what happens in the months to come.
Lobbyists involved in the debate privately say that Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., will direct his staff to start drafting reform legislation over the August recess to be ready for markup in the fall. Whether such a bill could get a vote in the House, let alone in the full committee, is an open question. But this week’s hearing is the first public salvo in what’s expected to be divisive, behind-the-scenes negotiations among all stakeholders about what kind of bill, if any, House leaders should pursue.
The policy, signed into law by President Bush as part of a comprehensive energy bill in 2005 and strengthened two years later in another energy bill, is at the center of one of the most diverse lobbying fights in Washington.
Drevna’s group is part of an unofficial alliance of trade organizations representing the oil, livestock, dairy, and restaurant industries that advocate for outright repeal through a website called smarterfuelfuture.org. These groups complain of high corn prices and unachievable standards.
Other industries also concerned about the mandate include automakers, who are worried about engine safety being compromised by higher blends of ethanol, and environmental groups, which say emissions of greenhouse gases from ethanol production outweigh the benefits from burning less gasoline.
On the other side of the fight is an equally diverse (albeit smaller) group of companies and trade organizations that defend the biofuels mandate. This group includes corn-ethanol producers such as POET and renewable-energy organizations such as ACORE, whose president, Dennis McGinn, was tapped earlier this month by President Obama to serve as assistant secretary of the Navy for energy. A website launched last fall, fuelsamerica.org, expresses support for corn-based ethanol and advanced biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, which has a lower carbon footprint but isn’t coming to market as fast as Congress envisioned in 2007 when it strengthened the mandate to require more-advanced biofuels.
“You have two strong coalitions going after one another,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group representing both advanced-and corn-ethanol companies. Dinneen, who is also testifying Tuesday, added: “The folks in big food that have joined big oil to oppose this have never been enthusiastic about ethanol.” The Fuels America coalition, which includes Dinneen’s group, launched a new Washington-focused advertising campaign Monday that sets up a stark choice between the oil industry and renewable energy. The campaign, whose cost was not disclosed, will run in area Metro stations and publications and on radio and TV.