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Biofuels policy is on the wrong road

Thursday, July 7, 2011

For almost two decades, the Environmental Working Group has advocated for protecting vulnerable people from toxic contaminants, ending crop subsidies that encourage environmental harm and investing instead in conservation and sustainable development.

And over the last half decade, EWG has analyzed the available scientific data and concluded that the nation’s biofuels policy is going down the wrong road.

This week The Washington Post took a similar stand in an editorial that called on Congress to end its expensive habit of protecting corn ethanol with three expensive, taxpayer-funded giveaways:

…a $6 billion-a-year tax subsidy to those who blend it into gasoline, a tariff on competing imports and a mandate that billions of gallons enter Americans’ fuel tanks every year…

The editors called on lawmakers to call a halt to “three decades of federal patronage of the industry” as it works to cut the federal deficit.

“Saving money by slashing ethanol supports should be among the most obvious items in any debt deal. President Obama and the House of Representatives should join the Senate in good sense.”

In addition, the editorial cited the compelling argument of EWG’s legislative analyst Sheila Karpf that “higher production of corn contributes to the depletion of soils and the dirtying of water.”

Today (July 7), EWG’s Chief of Staff and General Counsel Heather White took that argument and others directly to Capitol Hill, testifying before the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. The hearing, titled “Hitting the Ethanol Blend Wall: Examining the Science on 15,” examined the scientific and technical issues related to the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decisions allowing the sale of ethanol blends of up to 15 percent.

Read White's full oral testimony.

EWG strongly opposed the EPA’s decision to waive the federal Clean Air Act to allow the percentage of ethanol blended with gasoline to increase by 50 percent, from 10 to 15 percent. Scientific data indicates that E15 and higher blends will hurt the environment and public health and likely result in a consumer nightmare for small engine owners, boaters and owners of older vehicles, who may find their engines damaged and their warranties voided.

White testified:

We believe in a strong, vibrant, well-funded EPA and robust authority for the administrator.  Most of the time, we’re on EPA’s side. This agency protects our public health and has saved billions of dollars in health care costs through environmental enforcement and regulation.

But, we think this decision is a bad call. It asks Americans to play roulette at the gas station if they fill an unapproved vehicle with E15.

EWG is urging Congress to:

(1) Allow the ethanol tax credit to expire in 2011 and eliminate other oil subsidies and tax breaks.

(2) Reject corn ethanol industry proposals for government grants and loan guarantees to support infrastructure such as blender pumps, corn ethanol pipelines and mandates for flex-fuel vehicles.

(3) Invest in focused research on advanced biofuels, including those recommended by the federal Interagency Biofuels Task Force, that would significantly reduce greenhouse gases, do not compete with or displace food crops and are environmentally sustainable over the short and long-term.

(4) Reform the Renewable Fuels Standard by freezing and phasing out conventional biofuels mandates and adding significant and enforceable environmental safeguards to the advanced biofuels mandate.

(5) Support policies that would cut gasoline consumption by encouraging drivers to make fewer trips, carpool and invest in vehicles or forms of transportation that actually reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Now is the time to take a fresh look at our biofuels policy and get it on the right track. It is critical for the federal government to encourage biofuels that are compatible with existing infrastructure, conserve soil and water, and do not compete with the global food supply.