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Ethanol advocates, ag groups getting pushback over ‘Clean Car’ opposition

As “California Clean Cars” bills languish on in the 2008 Legislature, more and more are waving a blaming finger at Minnesota’s agricultural groups and the upstart ethanol industry for making exaggerated claims at the behest of the auto industry — th

As “California Clean Cars” bills languish on in the 2008 Legislature, more and more are waving a blaming finger at Minnesota’s agricultural groups and the upstart ethanol industry for making exaggerated claims at the behest of the auto industry — the same industry that not so long ago opposed legislative attempts to promote ethanol, which has become a cash cow in corn country.

And now some legislators are publicly warning ethanol advocates to cool it lest their industry get caught up in the same black-hat stigma that plagues American automakers.

“Never in a million years did I think this bill would be seen as anti-ethanol — because it is not,” said a frustrated Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who is working to save her House bill. A companion Senate measure by Roseville DFLer John Marty is bottled up in committee and is officially dead for the session that ends May 19.

“I’m still holding out hope, but it doesn’t look good,” said Marty, who was also caught off-guard by the opposition to his bill by farm groups and ethanol producers.

Climate committee sought change
The legislation would link Minnesota to California’s nation-leading emissions standards for new passenger vehicles, something recommended by Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 55-member Climate Change Advisory Committee as a way to meet mandates by the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act to reduce greenhouse gases.

Hortman expected the auto industry to oppose her bill, as it has in the 12 other states that have already adopted California’s regulations and the half dozen others considering it. She also expected the United Auto Workers and machinists’ unions to oppose the bills, just as they’ve teamed with automakers for two decades to successfully derail federal fuel-efficiency improvements. 

But the opposition from ethanol advocates — and through them the farm groups — was unexpected. The alliance with the auto industry has effectively stalled the Clean Cars bills, and that has cast a darkening shadow over an industry that once enjoyed broad support.

Political support for ethanol is still strong in Minnesota, but stress fractures have opened as a skeptical public wonders why ethanol receives so much taxpayer largesse. 

Constituents question subsidies
“I’m a supporter of biofuels,” Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said at a packed hearing the other day. “But I have to tell you, every time I attend a meeting in my district I’m asked why we continue to subsidize ethanol. Some are demanding that we just stop it.”

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary of Fridley went further.

With ethanol advocates in the audience and among legislators at the hearing table, Chaudhary warned that concern over ethanol is growing in the Twin Cities and suburbs. “We’re going to have another redistricting in two years, and that will mean fewer rural seats” at the Legislature, Chaudhary said, pointedly cautioning that a developing backlash against ethanol could grow.

One of those nodding in agreement was Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Appleton, whose district has a lot of corn.

“We’d better pay attention to this,” Peterson said later. “We don’t want any unintended consequences.”

Minnesota’s 17 corn-ethanol plants are expected to double over the next few years. Sometime this year the combined annual capacity of the plants will surpass a billion gallons. 

High water consumption
Recently, critics have pointed to the high water consumption by ethanol plants (four to seven gallons are needed for every gallon of ethanol, and most plants are located in drier parts of the state), the broad environmental effects of fertilizers and pesticides to grow corn, and surging grocery prices caused in key part by corn grown for fuel instead of food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported recently that 6.8 million acres of conservation-reserve grassland will be plowed up over the next five years to grow more crops, including corn. Last month the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for the first time ordered a full-scale environmental review of an ethanol plant planned near Erskine, Minn.

At a recent late-night House debate, DFL Rep. Ken Tschumper, a La Crescent, Minn., dairy farmer, forced a floor vote on whether to end Minnesota’s 20-cent per gallon ethanol blending credit that, along with a 10-percent ethanol fuel mandate, was enacted to create a market for the biofuel. Tschumper got 37 votes, something that Peterson said was noticed by rural legislators. 

Nationally, there is growing pressure to cut the 54-cent tariff on ethanol imports that protects U.S. producers from less expensive South American cane-ethanol.

A desire to expand E85 fuel
Vallerie Jerich, a lobbyist with the Minnesota Corn Growers, bristled at the suggestion that her group’s opposition to the Clean Cars legislation had anything to do with the auto industry, which, she said, isn’t trusted by the ethanol industry. Rather, she said, there is concern that the California regulations would impede Minnesota’s efforts to expand E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) and push the auto industry to manufacture flex-fuel vehicles that can burn a range of ethanol blends.

While Jerich insisted independence from the automakers, the Corn Growers’ name appears on a joint letter to legislators in opposition to the Clean Cars bills. Others include the Minnesota Farm Bureau, the Minnesota Farmers Union, the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Minnesota Auto Dealers’ Association, and local chapters of the United Auto Workers and Association of Machinists. A principal organizer of the opposition is the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, made up of ethanol producers and the auto manufacturers.

However, one ethanol lobbyist said privately that he advised his group to stay off the letter, because he said he fears the very backlash against ethanol that some legislators say has already started.