June 19, 2005
Farmers wait for energy bill
Amendment would produce several ethanol plants in state
By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - With the Senate poised to complete its energy bill in the next two weeks, Illinois farmers are holding out high hopes that a long-sought ethanol mandate finally will be enacted.
The Senate kicked off its debate Wednesday, approving an amendment that would require refineries around the country to use 8 billion gallons of ethanol and other renewable fuels a year by 2012, double the amount of the corn-based ethanol that currently is being used.
A House-passed bill would require just 5 billion gallons, an amount ethanol supporters say will be reached without a congressional mandate by 2007.
If approved, the 8 billion gallon requirement would translate into six to 10 new ethanol plants in the state over 10 years, according to the Illinois Corn Growers Association.
Illinois is the nation's second-largest ethanol producing state, behind Iowa. It currently has six plants.
"I think there's a lot more optimism this year than there's been the last two or three years of ac- tually getting an energy bill through the process and on to the president's desk," said Rodney Weinzierl, the association's executive director.
"We are past the presidential election, which definitely played into the last Senate debate, and there's more of a public push on the need to get something done," he said.
Two years ago, an energy bill died when the Senate blocked a House-Senate conference agreement because of a controversial provision that would give liability protection to producers of MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether, a fuel additive found to contaminate groundwater. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., voted against the conference agreement because he said it would limit the ability of communities in Illinois and elsewhere to seek damages and would force taxpayers to pick up the cleanup costs.
The issue could be a sticking point in conference this year as well. The House-passed bill contains liability protection for MTBE producers, but the Senate bill does not. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, strongly supports the liability protection for MTBE producers, many of which are in his state.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and her counterparts in 10 other states have urged lawmakers to reject any legislation that would shield MTBE producers from lawsuits over contaminated drinking water. Three Illinois cities have lawsuits pending: Crystal Lake, Island Lake and Woodstock. East Alton has settled its suit for $8 million.
Frank Maisano, an energy lobbyist who represents refiners and MTBE manufacturers, agrees that President Bush will be more involved in resolving the issue this time around.
"The White House is playing a much more active role this time than they did last time only because they had a lot more going on last time, including Medicare," Maisano said. "That's going to be a factor, having the president and the weight of the White House playing in the debate."
While the White House hasn't taken a position on the MTBE issue, Bush has called on Congress to have an energy bill completed before lawmakers leave for their August recess.
However, several hurdles remain even before the bill passes out of the Senate and goes to a House-Senate conference committee. This week, the Senate will consider several amendments to address global warming. Durbin may offer an amendment to increase vehicle fuel efficiency standards, his spokeswoman said.
A package of energy tax incentives, which was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, is expected to be added to the bill. The package, which is estimated to cost $14 billion over 10 years, includes two tax credits to encourage investment in less-polluting, "clean coal" technologies, which would help southern Illinois' struggling coal communities.
The Senate committee-approved tax credits focus more on renewable fuels than the House bill, which favors the oil and natural gas industry. The Senate package also would cost far more than the $6.7 billion sought by the White House.
Durbin and other Democrats pushed unsuccessfully this week for an amendment that would set a goal of reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil by 40 percent in 20 years.
Nevertheless, Durbin expects to support the bill at the end of the day, said his spokeswoman Angela Benander.
"Depending on foreign oil means depending on the people who own it," Durbin said earlier this week. "Replacing Middle Eastern oil with Midwestern ethanol is a winner for everyone but the oil sheiks."
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., supports the ethanol provisions in the Senate bill, but hasn't taken a position on the final bill because of pending amendments, his aide said.
Some environmentalists oppose the Senate energy bill as it now stands.
"This is an energy bill that is really reliant on fossil fuels. Illinois would benefit from a better energy bill if our cars went farther on a gallon of gas, if we improved and invested in energy efficiency and if we started investing in renewable energy," said Colleen Sarna of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club.