In pressing its opposition to “Clean Cars” bills in St. Paul, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association claims that if the legislation becomes law, the state’s ethanol industry would suffer, in major part because many “flex-fuel” vehicles capable of burning up to 85 percent ethanol blends could not be sold here.
A Corn Growers’ report widely circulated at the Capitol lists 18 flex-fuel vehicles that are shown as “not available in California” (in large red type), where the law limiting tailpipe emissions is already in effect. The proposed Minnesota law, which would place limits on tailpipe emissions stricter than U.S. rules, is patterned after “Clean Cars” laws that have been enacted in California and 13 other states.
But phone calls by MinnPost to more than a dozen California auto dealerships revealed that nearly all of the 18 vehicles on the Corn Growers’ “not available” list are available and being sold.
“I just sold two 320s last week,” said Chuck Debunch of Palo Alto, referring to the Mercedes-Benz ML320 biodiesel that’s on the “not available” list.
Dakota, Ram and Durango pickups readily available
A Dodge salesman in Modesto, identified only as “Magic,” said that the Dodge Dakota, Ram and Durango flex-fuel pickups on the “not available” list are readily available.
A Ford dealer in Redding said two flex-fuel cars on the “not available” list are not sold to the general public. However, he said, the Ford Crown Victoria and Lincoln Town Car are sold in fleets and to rental companies, and are frequently seen on California roads.
One that is on the list, the Volkswagen Toureg biodiesel, is not available in California or anywhere because only 1,000 of the cars were built for the U.S. market.
Representatives of the Shakopee-based Corn Growers were out of town and unavailable for comment.
Earlier this week the group sent a letter to legislators saying that the information in its report is from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy “and NOT from a phone call placed to automobile dealerships.”
That was a pointed reference to Rep. Andy Welti, DFL-Plainview, who last week had his staff make several calls to California and two other states that have adopted the Clean Cars standards similar to what’s being considered for Minnesota. Welti found that in each case the cars on the Corn Growers “not available” list were in fact available.
Welti, who said his father was a member of the Corn Growers and that he has volunteered at the group’s booth at his county fair, later supported the House Clean Car bill by Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
The companion bill, Senate File 674, by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is scheduled to make its first stop this afternoon in the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications.
National rule under consideration
Earlier this week, the Obama Administration announced that it was considering a national tailpipe rule so that automakers won’t have to produce different vehicles for California and other states that have adopted that state’s stricter rules.
Valerie Jerich, a lobbyist for the Corn Growers, said that national standards would be supported by her group and by the auto manufacturers. Jerich said that U.S. regulations would obviate the need for a new law in Minnesota, a point that’s expected to play well among legislators in St. Paul who prefer that the controversy go away.
Some in the ethanol industry, and especially the Corn Growers, have been criticized for the strong opposition to the Clean Cars bills. When the legislation was heard in a Senate committee last spring, Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, sternly told ethanol advocates, “You’re in the weeds on this.”
Under the stricter California rules, passenger vehicles must be certified for sale by the Air Resources Board (ARB). The Corn Growers list was sent to the ARB, and all but five were certified for sale.
The underlying point of the Corn Growers is that the California tailpipe regulations would hurt Minnesota’s ethanol producers, and as evidence of that the industry says that few flex-fuel pumps are available in the Golden State.
California making E85 fuel more widely available
But that’s changing. California just spent $25 million on a demonstration project in Sacramento to promote ethanol sales by making the E85 fuel (a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) more widely available.
“We are certainly not against ethanol,” said the ARB’s Christina Ragsdale in Sacramento. “We are promoting ethanol because we see it as helping to meet the state’s low-carbon fuels standard.”
“The problem is that California agriculture produces relatively little corn,” added John Swanton of the ARB’s San Diego office. “We don’t have so much ethanol production here, but we’re working to change that.”
Swanton said that California has “more than a million” flex-fuel vehicles, capable of burning ethanol blends as high as E85. He acknowledged that few of the flex fuelers actually burn ethanol because of so few E85 pumps scattered across the state.
Ron Way covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.