BRATTLEBORO — A war is being waged as conversations on climate change are coming up along with changes to a federal mandate.
"Over the last weekend, we had more debated discussion in Vermont than the Democratic debate in Iowa over ethanol," said Matt Dempsey, spokesman for the Center for Regulatory Solutions, referring to talks about the Environmental Protection Agency's deadline coming up at the end of this month around the question of how much corn ethanol should be used in gasoline.
A report from his group says New England has lost nearly $6.29 billion in gross domestic product opportunity from 2005 to 2014 due to mandates involved with federal corn ethanol policy known as the renewable fuel standard. This comes at a time when the U.N. is planning to talk solutions for climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions as it will convene the annual Conference of the Parties in Paris, France, on Nov. 30. The EPA is expected to come up with updated rules requiring greater volumes of biofuels be added to the United States' fuel supply.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, has spoken out against the mandate, saying corn ethanol ruins small engines that power lawn mowers, chainsaws, boats and snowmobiles, while others believe the mandate creates jobs, inspires economic growth and reduces greenhouse gases. He was recently attacked in a television advertisement run by Fuels America.
"The fact is that a federal mandate to blend corn ethanol into gasoline is driving up feed prices for farmers and food prices for consumers," Welch said. "And the fact is that the process of producing ethanol is harmful to the environment."
When coming into Congress in 2007, Welch told the Reformer, he saw ethanol had an "extraordinary trifecta of subsidies" such as a 54 cent per gallon tariff barrier, a 45 cent per gallon tax credit for ethanol companies and the mandate.
"The tariff barrier was intended to keep Brazilian ethanol out of the American market," said Welch, who assisted in repealing that.
Allowing the tax subsidy, known as the volumetric ethanol excise tax credit, to expire saved Americans $6 billion, according to Welch, who assisted in seeing that happen.
The mandate for ethanol is now the "last leg standing," he said, and the amount of ethanol required for fuels is expected to jump from 10 percent to 15 percent.
"All the promised benefits of fuel to fuel didn't work out. It was more expensive and expended more energy," Welch said. "I got involved early on and there was a lot of growing opposition as people realized it. You use more energy producing ethanol than you save in carbon emissions. Everything from planting crop and processing."
Welch considered last year a success when the percentage of ethanol was kept at 10 percent. But he believes the country should get rid of the mandate altogether. He sees presidential conflicts as the barrier.
"I think we'd have the votes if it was on the floor," he said.
Welch is banding together with 150 colleagues to oppose increasing the percentage of ethanol in the EPA's mandate, according to Dempsey, who is going around the country "releasing detailed reports" in several states. He wants to outline the impacts on both the environment and economy. In addition to New England, the reports have hit Ohio, California and Indiana. The efforts are a project of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council.
The mandate was signed into law by George W. Bush 10 years ago with the goal of addressing climate change and the United States' reliance on oil. Welch said he believes those efforts were well-intentioned but ended up being a flop.
"We have more oil and gas today than we ever had before," Dempsey said. "A number of researchers around the country have found the environmental impact is worse."
The center's report said a recent study commissioned by the Renewable Fuels Association, a leading ethanol industry group, found that more than 86,000 direct jobs were created due to the mandate while an additional 300,000 jobs were created indirectly.
"All told, the study found that the ethanol industry contributed $44 billion to the country's gross domestic product in the year 2013 alone," the report stated. "But while some have questioned the methodology behind the ethanol industry's jobs reports, empirical evidence supports the general contention that the mandate, which forces motorists to consume ever-increasing volumes of ethanol in their fuel, has likely contributed to positive economic outcomes for the six or seven states that produce between 60 and 70 percent of the nation's corn crop. But what about everyone else?"
An overwhelming number of people in Vermont support Welch, Dempsey said, looking at his group's polling that found 67 percent of Vermonters disagree with the increased use of corn ethanol in the country's fuel supply. Nearly nine out of 10 people in the state would be less likely to support the mandate knowing that Welch opposed the program while 82 percent said they were likelier to support Welch at the polls after seeing his opposition to the mandate.