WASHINGTON, July 26, 2017 - Efforts to sell E15 during the summer have hit another stumbling block, this time at the hands of senators.

In March, Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer introduced the Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act (S.517). The bill – and a companion measure in the House – would amend a narrow portion of the Clean Air Act preventing the sale of E15 – gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol – from the beginning of June through mid-September due to Reid Vapor Pressure restrictions designed to control emissions. The bill had a hearing in June, but the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has yet to mark up the bill.

Supporters of the measure say that’s because what was hoped to be a tweak to a sentence or two of legal language was overtaken by lawmakers with other ambitions.

“It’s pretty easy to see that the path to success for this bill was to keep it as a simple regulatory fix,” Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, told Agri-Pulse. “What happened was it got too politically complicated because both parties started to see it as a vehicle to attach all sorts of different things on top of it.”

The bill would have opened up and amended the Clean Air Act, but some saw this as an opportunity to take a legislative stab at the Renewable Fuel Standard, created under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Some were more vocal about what they would like to add to the bill – Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe tied the effort to the need for RFS reform in a speech on the Senate floor – but others have been more guarded with their proposals.

Fischer has been promised a markup of the bill, but leadership of the Environment and Public Works Committee has yet to put it on the schedule and likely won’t before the Senate leaves town in August. A committee spokesman tells Agri-Pulse the bill currently “does not have the support necessary to pass the committee.”

Four Republicans on the committee have signed onto the bill (Fischer, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, and Jerry Moran of Kansas), but other GOP members – including Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming – are opposed. To pass the 21-person committee, the bill would need the support of those four Republicans and at least seven Democrats.           

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and an original cosponsor of the bill – but not an EPW committee member – told reporters Tuesday the rest of that panel’s Republican members – including Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming – are opposed.

The fact that EPW is holding off on marking up the bill has been cause for celebration in certain circles. Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, called it a “major victory” that “sets the stage for Congress to roll up its sleeves to tackle reforming the corn ethanol mandate.”

Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen told Agri-Pulse that for ethanol opponents, particularly in the oil business, “the answer to any question is ‘Just lower the RFS or repeal the RFS.’ So it’s hard to take some of that so-called analysis seriously.” He says he hasn’t noticed any discernible trend on Capitol Hill toward a desire for RFS repeal aside from familiar talking points from familiar characters.

dineenBob Dinneen, RFA

“There’s always noise, there’s always smoke; there’s not always fire,” he said. “I think there’s lots of folks that are spinning their wheels trying to create the illusion that there’s lots of momentum behind this.”

Coleman also disagreed with the premise, saying the concept of taking a victory lap over the delay of a measure that is still up for consideration is “thin.”

“They’re pretending that they didn’t play defense for the last few months,” Coleman said. “They’re pretending that they didn’t just run around like chickens and try to defend their market share at the expense of the American consumer. And now, they’re pretending that because they were able to ward off a standalone bill – which, quite frankly, is fairly easy to ward off in this political environment – that they somehow have momentum to proactively change the RFS … that’s wishful thinking on their part.

“If I were them I’d pretend that this is a turning point too, but that doesn’t make it true.”

Furthermore, Dinneen says a push for RFS reform would have a hard time purely as a matter of Washington practicality.

“Frankly, when you look at the congressional schedule, you see what is on their plate for the remainder of the year, it’s really hard to see how they would be able to find the time to take up something as controversial and as divisive within each caucus as something like this.”

The legislative safety of the RFS doesn’t change the fact that it’s become an uphill battle for renewable fuels advocates to get the Reid Vapor Pressure relief they’ve been after for years. Hope remains for an administrative fix to the issue, but there’s concern that approach could lead to a legal challenge, so the legislative route has been preferred. But to make that happen, lawmakers and supporters alike will have to find a way to keep the measure clean.

“It was never an aircraft carrier, it was a canoe,” Coleman said. “People are hurling everything they could possibly think of on top of it, and sunk it for now.”