WASHINGTON, June 14, 2017 - Senate lawmakers will gather today to consider the sale of higher blends of ethanol year-round, a move praised and opposed by familiar parties in the renewable fuels argument.

The legislation being examined by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is the Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act (S. 517). That bill, introduced by Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer and co-sponsored by a bipartisan contingent of 17 senators, would allow the sale of gasoline with higher blends of ethanol during the summer by amending a provision of the Clean Air Act. Currently, the legal language caps the Reid vapor pressure (RVP) waiver in the statute at levels allowing for the sale of 10 percent ethanol, which constitutes most of the gasoline purchased in the U.S.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Tuesday that he’s hopeful the bill will be marked up by the committee next week. Grassley, a cosponsor of the bill, said it’s too late for the bill to be of assistance this summer, but he wants to see the provision attached to “whatever bill we can attach it to between now” and the end of 2017. That would ensure enough time for retailers to prepare for E15 sale in the summer of 2018. But Grassley noted that in conversations with leadership, “there’s been no promises made, just expressions of good faith effort.”

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., has introduced identical legislation in the House, but his office told Agri-Pulse that they have “no information on timing” on the House side of Capitol Hill. In the meantime, they are trying to rally support and add to the bill’s 40 cosponsors.

A day in advance of the hearing, the American Petroleum Institute held a press call on the subject of E15, and repeatedly said that the fuel is “not ready for primetime.” Frank Macchiarola, API’s downstream group director, cited infrastructure concerns and vehicle compatibility issues as reasons lawmakers should be pumping the brakes on E15.

“As you’ve seen with the RFS and now you see with this waiver, you can mandate anything you want,” he said, “but the fact of the matter is that doesn’t change the underlying problems that exist with E15.”

To which Bob Dinneen at the Renewable Fuels Association says, what problems?

“After more testing than has ever been done on any previous new fuel additive, EPA in 2011 approved E15 for use in all light duty vehicles built since 2001, accounting for nearly 90 percent of today’s automotive fleet,” Dinneen said in a statement provided to Agri-Pulse. “Consumers are not mandated to use E15 or any ethanol blend, but we want to ensure consumers can access the fuel if they so choose.”

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor also weighed in.

Emily Skor

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor

“E15 is increasingly popular in 29 states and counting – it has more octane, it costs less, and it’s cleaner. This bill will lift a needless burden on retailers so consumers can pick their own fuel and continue to open new market opportunities for the next generation of low-carbon, homegrown biofuels. Growth Energy is rallying all our friends in the environmental, retail, consumer, and advanced biofuel community to ensure that America’s fuel options aren’t limited by outdated regulations.”

Trade association squabbles aside, Wednesday’s hearing marks a potential turning point for the summer sale of E15. The RVP waiver necessary to make that happen has been at the top of the list for ethanol backers for years, but administrative action was stymied by statutory interpretation under the Obama administration. Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s head of the EPA, has said that the agency is undertaking a statutory review to see if the waiver could be addressed administratively, but has not announced a conclusion to that review.

Should the Trump EPA decide it has the statutory authority that the Obama EPA never claimed, it could make the changes administratively. But groups like RFA, Growth Energy and a host of others are hoping to keep this out of the hands of the court system, and an administrative decision would face a likely legal challenge.

Thus, the push for a legislative approach that would be cleaner, have far less ambiguity, and have the enforceability of being written into law.

Five witnesses were scheduled for the hearing: Brooke Coleman with the Advanced Biofuels Business Council; Jonathan Lewis with the Clean Air Task Force; Mike Lorenz with convenience store chain Sheetz; Briggs & Stratton Corp. President and CEO Todd Teske; and Janet Yanowitz, principal engineer with Ecoengineering.

Lewis and Teske likely are on the side of less ethanol, not more, given previously established positions on the issue. Lewis has been critical of the Renewable Fuel Standard in the past, and Briggs & Stratton cautions against the use of E15 in its small engines and voids the warranty if an unapproved fuel type has been used.

Coleman and Lorenz will publicly back the bill and encourage senators to support it as well. In testimony obtained by Agri-Pulse, Lorenz says Sheetz supports the bill not “because it is backed by corn farmers; rather we support this legislation because it allows us to sell a legal fuel to customers that want to buy it year-round.” In his testimony, Coleman will say that S. 517 “targets and fixes a critical regulatory glitch that is constraining growth and innovation in the ethanol industry.”

For her part, Yanowitz has previously conducted research showing an “indistinguishable” RVP impact between E10 and E15. That argument is critical for proponents of the bill seeking to show a lack of impact on fuel volatility and Clean Air Act emissions standards.

The hearing was scheduled to convene at 10:00 a.m. EST Wednesday.