Senate energy bill ignores biofuels

By Kris Bevill | July 15, 2010
July 28, 2010

After a summer of delays, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., finally unveiled the Senate's attempt at an energy bill July 27, to the disappointment of many in the biofuels industry. The 409-page bill, titled the "Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act of 2010," is notably focused more on oil drilling restrictions and the BP oil spill than on energy independence. A strategy to reduce oil consumption is not introduced until halfway through the bill and is focused solely on natural gas and electric batteries as the preferred methods of reducing U.S. oil dependence.

The bill proposes to establish a vehicle and infrastructure development program for the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel "in order to achieve the maximum feasible reduction in domestic oil use." The bill offers rebates to consumers for the purchase of "qualified alternative fuel vehicles," which is defined as being vehicles that use compressed or liquid natural gas, and would also offer rebates to consumers who convert conventionally fueled vehicles to operate on natural gas.

Additionally, the bill would establish a plug-in electric drive vehicle deployment program to assist in the "rapid deployment" of plug-in electric drive vehicles. Phase I of the program would last for three years, beginning on the date funding is first provided to selected "deployment communities." One of the goals of the program is to deploy 400,000 plug-in electric vehicles within those communities during the three-year timeframe.

Ethanol industry leaders said the bill was a missed opportunity to offer support for domestic biofuels and some dismissed the bill as being nothing more than a political maneuver.

"Instead of spending taxpayer money on unproven technologies, policy-makers should invest in the infrastructure that would allow for the expansion of the only renewable energy source that is displacing significant volumes of foreign oil today: ethanol," Poet CEO Jeff Broin said in a statement.

Growth Energy, which recently introduced a plan to establish a build-out of the infrastructure needed to increase ethanol use in the U.S., expressed frustration at its plan being omitted from the Senate bill. "By omitting these measures from the bill, the Senate is maintaining our addiction to foreign oil rather than investing in a home-grown fuel that has been proven to be cleaner and more economically beneficial to our country," CEO Tom Buis said. "We will be working with members of Congress to offer amendments to accomplish the policy goals that should have been adopted years ago to secure our nation's energy independence."

During a press conference to discuss the bill, Reid and other Democratic leaders blamed Republicans for the bill's lack of comprehensive coverage but defended its potential to create jobs and reduce oil dependency.

"While the GOP stands in the way of a comprehensive energy package, we must move forward to create jobs and hold BP accountable," said, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. "This bill will help protect our environment and invest in the development of alternative energy jobs and technology. I am committed to passing this legislation because it will create good-paying clean energy jobs and lead the way for more comprehensive energy reforms."

Reid said the bill will create jobs and save consumers money through energy efficiency incentives, but admitted the bill lacks details. "This bill does not address every issue of importance to our nation's energy challenges, and we have to continue to work to find bipartisan agreement on a comprehensive bill to help reduce pollution and deal with the very real threat that global warming poses," he said in a statement. "But this is a good bill that deserves bipartisan support, and continues us along the path toward a clean energy future."

Matt Hartwig, communications director for the Renewable Fuels Association, expressed skepticism about the bill's chance of passing Congress this year and said the RFA is focused on identifying bills with the best chances of being passed, and will attach ethanol-related amendments to those bills. He acknowledged the Senate's need to act on the oil spill, but said the opportunity for comprehensive energy legislation was missed in the process. "You can't have a discussion about the energy future of the nation without including everything that's on the menu, and right now biofuels are the game when it comes to displacing imported oil," he said. "If we can replace the need to drill with biofuels or other renewable, then you don't have to worry about who's at fault for that blowout preventer. You're not drilling in a mile of water to begin with."