Inhofe makes his move on the RFS

By Kris Bevill | June 02, 2011

Holding true to promises made earlier in the year, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., introduced legislation on May 26 aimed at allowing individual states to opt out of the corn ethanol portion of the renewable fuel standard (RFS). The Fuel Feedstock Freedom Act would also replace current RFS term “cellulosic biofuel” with “next generation biofuel,” expanding the category to include algae-derived fuels and other drop-in fuels derived from renewable biomass.

Calling his bill a “common sense solution,” Inhofe said the bill will allow fuel retailers to respond to consumer demand for ethanol-free gasoline. “The ethanol portion of the RFS has been a top concern in my home state of Oklahoma,” he stated. “With strong bipartisan, bicameral support, I hope the Fuel Feedstock Freedom Act will have a good chance of success, and I look forward to joining my colleagues as we work to pass this bill.”

The sole co-sponsor to Inhofe’s bill was fellow Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine. In a statement, Snowe said she strongly supports methods to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, but believes the policies enacted by government should reflect the geographical restrictions of corn ethanol.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., introduced the companion to Sen. Inhofe’s bill. He was able to pick up a few more co-sponsors, including two Democrats -- Reps. Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Jim Moran of Virginia -- and fellow California Republicans Duncan Hunter and Darrell Issa. Several of the representatives cited rising food prices as their reason for supporting the bill. “This bi-partisan bill will allow states to get out from under a crushing federal mandate that pollutes our environment and picks our pockets at the gas pump and grocery store,” Bilbray said in a statement.

“Taxpayers have paid billions for the federal government’s fixation on corn-based energy,” stated Issa. “And what have we to show for it? Higher prices at the grocery store. This legislation provides states with the flexibility to opt out of government’s inefficient, costly ethanol mandate without being penalized. It’s a solution long overdue, and its necessity is yet another reminder that the American people, not the federal government, are in the best position to decide which energy solutions work best for them.”

Ethanol groups have been battling Inhofe’s threats to modify the RFS amid misinformation campaigns relating higher food prices to corn ethanol production since the beginning of the year. Most recently, a coalition of ethanol supporters, including the Renewable Fuels Association, the American Coalition for Ethanol, the Advanced Ethanol Council, the Advanced Biofuels Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, sent a letter to Congressional leaders on May 17 urging them to leave the RFS as it stands. “Multiple companies are poised to make significant capital investments to commercialize new biofuels technologies in the near future that will help this country meet the appropriately aggressive targets in the RFS,” the group stated in its letter. “The predictable market conditions facilitated by the RFS are critical to those investments. We urge Congress to stand firm in the face of calls to waive or repeal the groundbreaking biofuels in the EISA [Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007], including the RFS.”

Inhofe’s bill would allow state legislatures to choose not to participate in the corn ethanol portion of the RFS and would require the U.S. EPA to then reduce the national volumetric mandate of corn ethanol by the percentage reflected by the state’s gasoline consumption. At a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing held earlier this year,  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy both warned Inhofe against this move, stating that corn ethanol has a vital position in the RFS goal of producing 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022 and reducing corn ethanol’s portion of the mandate would also jeopardize the acceleration of advanced biofuels technologies.

Inhofe’s bill has been deferred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, of which he serves as ranking member. The House bill will be taken up by the Committee on Energy and Commerce.