Ethanol touted at U.S. Senate hearing for possible national clean fuels standard

By: - February 16, 2023 7:00 am
Two tractor trailers and a car travel down a highway in New York City.

Two tractor trailers and a car travel down a highway in New York City.

A national clean transportation fuel standard should include enough flexibility to allow for biofuels and other non-electric-vehicle solutions, bipartisan members of a U.S. Senate panel said Wednesday.

The United States doesn’t have a national clean fuels standard, though senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee hinted that one may be in the works. 

Members of both parties said such a standard — if properly structured — could offer myriad benefits by encouraging lower-carbon energy sources like ethanol and hydrogen to power cars and trucks. Republicans, however, were much more qualified in their expectations.

Chairman Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, said a transition away from gasoline power was key to reaching climate goals.

“When people ask me why do we focus on reducing transportation emissions, I say it’s because that’s where a good deal of the emissions come from,” Carper said.

The transportation sector accounts for more than one-quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Oregon, California praised

Carper praised renewable fuel standards in Oregon and California for advancing lower-carbon-fuel vehicles, creating jobs and providing certainty to industry. 

He said those standards improved on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s renewable fuel standard by including hydrogen as a clean energy.

Some Republicans on the panel, including ranking member Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, raised concerns about how a federal clean fuel standards would be formulated and enforced.

“I’m very concerned by the concept of empowering bureaucrats to decide what fuel sources qualify, how and what associated phase-outs may look like,” Capito said. 

“We have watched administrations of both parties seesaw on the execution of regulatory programs that impact American energy prices, with experience revealing that heavy-handed regulatory approaches inevitably lead to reduced supplies and higher prices.”

Capito added that she had “nothing against” electric vehicles, but felt some policies, including the EPA’s clean fuel standard and California’s mandate to reach 100% zero-emission vehicle sales by 2035, offered that industry too many breaks. 

An emphasis on electric vehicles, which are much more expensive than gas-powered ones, didn’t consider that many people cannot afford them, Capito said.

Flexibility desired

The committee heard from a panel of three witnesses representing the hydrogen energy, ethanol and trucking industries. All agreed that fuel standards should be neutral on what technology is used to lower emissions, a view the senators largely endorsed.

“There’s more that we can and must do to support cleaner fuels for vehicles on our roads and provide greater certainty and flexibility for those who produce these fuels,” Carper said.

Under questioning from Oregon Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, Geoff Cooper, the president and CEO of the Missouri-based national ethanol trade group the Renewable Fuels Association, called the Oregon standard a model for the rest of the country because of the flexibility it offered. 

Oregon’s “life-cycle analysis,” a method of examining of a fuel’s carbon footprint that accounts for the carbon cost of producing the fuel as well as using it, was also helpfully transparent, he said.

“When we think about a low-carbon fuel standard done right, we point to Oregon,” Cooper said.

But Chris Spear, the president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, the federal coalition of state advocacy groups, told the panel that the trucking industry had an interest in a transition to cleaner fuels, but that both Oregon’s and California’s standards were too aggressive.

“We’ll get there,” Spear said. “It’s just going to take a little bit more time than some states are providing.”

Ethanol supported

U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, a Nebraska Republican who joined the Senate this year after serving as the state’s governor for eight years, said the corn-derived fuel ethanol should be considered as part of any national clean fuel standard.

“Ethanol saves consumers money at the pump, is going to help clean up the environment and is going to create jobs here in America,” he said. “Ethanol must be central to any discussion that we’re going to have about the future of transportation fuels.”

Ricketts said he worried that the federal government would prioritize electric vehicles over ethanol.

Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, who also chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, also promoted ethanol, saying “biofuel production lowers prices at the pump.” The price of E-15, a blend of 15% ethanol, was up to $1 per gallon lower than traditional gasoline in some areas last summer, she said.

Permitting reform

Carper and Wyoming Republican Cynthia Lummis agreed that changes to how federal agencies provide environmental permits were needed to reach clean energy goals.

A wind energy developer in her state took 10 years to gain some of the approvals needed to build transmission lines for a major new wind energy facility, she said.

“Without permitting reform, we don’t stand a chance,” Lummis said. “So I think that even for people who aspire to President Biden’s goal, that that should become a priority.”

Carper said he expected President Joe Biden would soon renew efforts to update permitting standards after a proposal from Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, failed last year.

“It’s all well and good that we have a lot of promising ways to create electricity without worsening our carbon situation here in this country,” Carper said.


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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.