President Joe Biden’s move to use emergency authority and grant summertime sales of E15 has been welcomed by a wide swath of lawmakers across the political spectrum. But the timeline of the announcement, the long-term goals of the Biden administration and the likely opposition the move will face from the oil sector all provide new impetus to the ethanol industry's effort to secure a lasting solution.
Biden was in Menlo, Iowa, Tuesday, where he stood in front of a pair of John Deere tractors and – as he put it – preached to the choir about the benefits of biofuels and the merits of summertime E15 sales to a partisan crowd of farmers and other biofuel supporters. The move – necessitated by a 2021 court decision that struck down a Trump administration effort – should offer consumers a less expensive option, the White House said, so long as they’re filling up at a pump that can sell E15.
“With this waiver, on June 1, you’re not going to show up at your local gas station and see a bag over the pump that has the cheapest gas; you’re going to be able to keep filling up with E15,” Biden said. “It’s going to solve a whole problem. But it’s not going to solve all our problems.”
The Biden administration’s action will technically come by way of an emergency fuel supply waiver issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. That waiver will have a 20-day shelf life, a senior administration official told reporters, and the agency can be expected to continue to renew it for the duration of the current situation of increased gas prices.
A White House fact sheet accompanying the announcement also points to sustainable aviation fuel production goals that would reach 3 billion gallons by 2030, work to expand canola's access to use as a feedstock within the nation's biofuel mandate, and commitments to expand the existing infrastructure for E15 throughout the country.
There’s broad recognition in biofuels circles that Tuesday’s announcement is not the end of the conversation; a real victory would come by way of legislation that would make the E15 waiver law. And to hear the biofuels industry tell it, they’ll now have a little more time to work on what comes next.
That’s where things might get interesting.
The obvious path to a permanent fix is a legislative change to the text of the Clean Air Act. Biofuels have long enjoyed bipartisan support on Capitol Hill but also face powerful headwinds from lawmakers sympathetic to arguments posed by oil and environmental interests alike.
Just last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has long been one the most vocal supporters of biofuels on Capitol Hill, said unless such language were attached to must-pass legislation, “I don’t consider that to be a very real possibility.”
But Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., said there is a groundswell of interest in a potential legislative option.
“More people know what ethanol is in the last three weeks than in my first three years of serving in Congress,” she told Agri-Pulse, pointing in particular to some members of the Democratic caucus. “Speaker Pelosi, I think, said the word ethanol four or five times in front of me in the last few weeks. People come up to me on the House floor and ask me to tell them more about ethanol.”
Craig and Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., introduced legislation shortly after the 2021 court ruling to put the E15 waiver into law. She said she’s currently in touch with the administration about the bill and argued the Biden White House was “willing to put, essentially, my legislation in place for a year. I think this is just the beginning of a conversation I’m going to be having with them about making this more permanent.”
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The Biden administration, however, is also retaining a long view on the marketplace. And that long view also includes a look at the continued proliferation of electric vehicles.
“We have a very robust agenda both in terms of addressing the current crisis but also longer term addressing the critically important environmental crisis,” Jared Bernstein with the White House Council of Economic Advisors said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.
“Biofuels have long been proposed and have long played a role in moving us toward a cleaner energy future,” he added. “Certainly as we move towards cleaner production, they’ll continue to play a role. But let’s be very clear; to state the obvious, an electric vehicle doesn’t use biofuels or any other kind of fuels.”
But Bernstein did acknowledge the small percentage of the vehicle fleet currently made up of electric vehicles and said “there’s going to be a role for biofuels for some time to come.” Biden himself echoed that sentiment in Iowa.
“This is an industry with a tremendous future,” Biden said. “You simply can’t get to net zero by 2050 without biofuels.”
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