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Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Hearing on Renewable Fuels

April 13, 2011

On Wednesday, April 13, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee held a hearing on domestic renewable fuels, with a focus on corn ethanol.  Witnesses on the first two panels included USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and officials from EPA and the Department of Energy who work on renewable fuel issues.  They were followed by a panel of supporters and a panel of critics of the federal subsidies that are provided to corn ethanol.

Both the Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) are opponents of corn ethanol, which as they acknowledged is a rare example of these two Senators being in agreement.  Senator Boxer signed onto a letter in November 2010 opposing the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, which provides a $0.45 for every gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline and a tariff of $0.54 cents per gallon on imported ethanol.  Senator Inhofe posted a statement for today’s hearing that announced he was working on a bill to allow states to opt out of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard that requires that gasoline be blended with an amount of ethanol that increases on a yearly basis.  Senator Inhofe also spoke out for increased extraction of fossil fuels in the U.S.

Currently, most of that ethanol produced in the U.S. uses corn starch as the feedstock.  The EPA representative at the hearing testified that over 14 billion gallons of ethanol produced from corn kernel starch will likely be blended with U.S. gasoline in 2011.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) expressed serious concerns about using corn to produce ethanol, including the impacts on the environment of increased corn production and the impacts on food prices from the diversion of corn starch from the animal feed supply to the fuel supply.  He referred to an article in the New York Times about the Environmental Working Group’s new report Losing Ground, which documents higher rates of erosion in the Corn Belt than officially reported.  The Report flags subsidies for corn ethanol as one of the causes of intense corn production that has led to soil degradation and severe gully erosion and washouts of farmland during heavy storm events.

Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE), representing the state second only to Iowa in corn ethanol production, defended corn ethanol production as the source of over 400,000 jobs and $34 billion in the U.S. economy.

USDA Secretary Vilsack also defended corn ethanol production and stated that the U.S. farming system has nothing to do with global food shortages.  He also noted that in terms of dealing with erosion, USDA is spending $320 million in the upper Mississippi River basin to partially reduce soil erosion, with soil erosion being reduced as much as 69-percent.  He added that nitrogen and phosphorus loading into waterways has been reduced.

In addition Secretary Vilsack, referred to a study by Professor Bruce Dale of Michigan State University which models a farming system using double cropping, such as winter rye, leaf protein concentrates to feed livestock, and pretreated forages.  The model suggests that the U.S. could produce 400 billion liters of ethanol from the system without decreasing domestic food production or agricultural exports and with increased soil fertility and biodiversity.  Professor Dale testified about his study at a March 30 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Evaluating High Gas Prices and How New Rules and Innovative Farming Can Help.

The Senators at the hearing were in general support of the development of alternative biofuels based on cellulosic feedstocks and  algae but those outside of the Corn Belt were critical of corn ethanol.  Despite record high corn production last year, U.S. corn reserves are at their lowest level in 15 years.   Corn ethanol production will likely remain a hot topic for this session of Congress and will also feature in the debates on the next Farm Bill.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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