Oil lobby had hand in house lawmakers’ anti-ethanol letter to EPA

November 6, 2015 Mark Drajem

An odd-bedfellows group of lawmakers — led by an oil-industry ally from Texas and a progressive Vermonter — raised a familiar-sounding concern about ethanol in a letter this week to EPA chief Gina McCarthy.

Their argument that the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring more ethanol than can be safely blended into gasoline has been made repeatedly by the oil industry. The echo in the letter wasn’t a coincidence: A lobbyist for refiner Marathon Petroleum Corp. was listed as an author of early drafts of what was distributed to lawmakers for them to sign on. The company says it offered input, but didn’t write the letter.

Ethanol producers say this shows that a campaign including chain restaurants, chicken producers, small-engine makers and even some environmental groups is being driven by oil producers and refiners, which oppose the mandates of the Renewable Fuel Standard. They found the lobbyist’s name in the letter’s electronic record and shared it with a reporter.

“It’s not hard to see the oil industry’s fingerprints all over this campaign,” said Brooke Coleman, the executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, which represents biofuel makers. “What this is about is trying to destroy the only competition they have in the marketplace.”

Michael Birsic, the lobbyist for Marathon and a former congressional aide, was listed electronically as the letter’s author.

‘Seeking Relief’

“As you would expect, these types of documents are collaborative in nature,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Marathon Petroleum was one of the collaborators and suggested technical comments. We were not the original or primary author of the letter. We are just one the many interested parties who are seeking relief from the unreasonableness of the RFS mandate.”

Oil and ethanol companies have intensified their battle over the future of the program in recent weeks, as President Barack Obama’s administration prepares to issue long-overdue requirements for the fuel’s use last year, this year and next year.

Blend Wall

Lobbyists representing companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Tesoro Corp.say the EPA’s proposal would force them to blend ethanol in at more than 10 percent of the gasoline supply, breaching what they call the blend wall of how much can be safely used. Ethanol producers say EPA is proposing to illegally cut the requirement for ethanol, and should prod refiners into using higher blends of the fuel.

In recent weeks the debate has a surprising turn, as the oil industry and its allies unveiled a television advertising campaign that argued ethanol is worse for the climate than gasoline. The ads used a quote from former Vice PresidentAl Gore, who won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work to stop climate change: “First-generation ethanol was a mistake.”

The letter to McCarthy was sent Wednesday and signed by more than 180 lawmakers. The EPA proposal for 2016 “would constitute a breach of the ethanol blendwall, which would cause adverse impacts on American consumers and the economy,” they said. The signers include a wide range of lawmakers, including Vermont Democrat Peter Welch, Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte and the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Kevin Brady.

‘Not Aware’

Republican congressman Bill Flores of Texas, who first circulated the letter, “was not aware until last week that the letter contained some material which might have originated from a stakeholder,” his spokesman, Andre Castro, said in an e-mail.

Spokespeople for both Welch and Goodlatte, who were signatories of the draft that went around to congressional offices, said the letter came from Flores’ staff.

“Congressman Welch signed on to Congressman Flores’ bipartisan letter to Administrator McCarthy regarding the RFS because it is consistent with his view that the corn ethanol mandate is a well-intentioned flop that is bad for consumers, bad for small engines, bad for farmers, and bad for the environment,” his spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

The EPA has a deadline of the end of this month to set the ethanol mandates.