Two Senate committees are wrestling over a critical energy policy that influences prices of both fuel and food: the renewable-fuels standard that mandates an increasing amount of biofuels—mostly corn-based ethanol—to be blended with gasoline each year.
The two panels that set energy and environment policy both want jurisdiction over the mandate, which has come under intense scrutiny from both parties in the past year. The standard is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is squarely in the wheelhouse of the Environment and Public Works Committee. That puts the burden on the backs of Energy and Natural Resources Committee leaders to argue why they should have top billing on the issue.
“We obviously feel we do,” said Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., regarding which committee has primary jurisdiction over the renewable-fuels standard, or RFS.
The mandate was created by a 2005 energy bill and expanded under another measure in 2007. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee has primary jurisdiction over issues involved with both those laws.
Wyden also noted that the RFS involves fuel, a primary focus of his committee. “That’s the operative word,” Wyden said, adding that he wants to talk to his colleagues, including Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., before commenting more on the issue.
Murkowski and Wyden seem to be on the same page. “When you think about the initiatives that we have identified as priorities, one of them is how we can consume less, and the RFS allows us to be consuming less when it comes to our oil,” Murkowski said.
When asked which committee has primary jurisdiction over the mandate, Murkowski smiled. “Of course, that’s the great debate,” she said. “There are those that would argue that it’s not the Energy Committee, that it’s the EPW Committee. As with many issues, it may be that you have aspects of the issue that reside in different committees.”
The position of Boxer and her staff seems to have evolved over the past few months. When asked in March about what she may do on the RFS, Boxer responded: “That would be Wyden’s jurisdiction. We do some of it, but he does a lot of it as well. We’re working with him.” When asked again about the jurisdiction issue last week, an aide to Boxer said that the mandate is “primarily EPW. It is under the Clean Air Act. EPA plays a central role.”
On this particular issue, which committee has the lead could make a big difference. Murkowski and Wyden both say Congress needs to scrutinize the mandate. They sent a letter in March to EPA asking about the price volatility in the biofuels market and how it affects gasoline prices. They are also planning a hearing next month on the prices of gasoline and other motor fuels.
Boxer, on the other hand, hasn’t indicated a desire to conduct oversight on the policy. “I’m very supportive of it,” Boxer said last week of the RFS. When asked if she would hold a hearing on the issue, she replied: “I don’t know if it’s necessary.”
A number of policymakers from both parties would disagree with her on that. The biofuels mandate has faced intense bipartisan inquiry ever since last year’s record-setting drought, which sent corn prices soaring. Refineries that are required to blend biofuels with gasoline rely almost entirely on corn-produced ethanol to meet the standard. Advanced biofuels made from cellulosic and other nonfood products are not coming to market as quickly as the law had envisioned. It’s these advanced biofuels that many Democrats, including Boxer, want to see succeed.
“I support the use of advanced and cellulosic biofuels and believe the federal government should be developing stronger initiatives to promote their use,” Boxer said during the last hearing she held on the policy, in April 2011.
It’s hard to rival the diversity and sheer number of groups and companies with a vested interest in the renewable-fuels standard, from food and livestock businesses to those in the environmental and energy sectors. The lobbying prowess of the interests seeking reform or an outright appeal of the RFS is already evident in the debate over the farm bill, which faces a vote of final passage on Monday. Although none of them received votes during last week’s debate, at least 10 GOP-proposed amendments were offered to the legislation that somehow related to the RFS and ethanol.
As the debate ripens, much hinges on which committee takes the lead: The Energy committee is more likely to push for RFS changes, whereas Boxer’s panel might just let the EPA tweak the biofuels policy.