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At Issue: Clean cars vs. clean fuels

Published (4/11/2008)
By Nick Busse
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When members of the House agriculture policy and finance committees sat down to hear arguments for and against toughening Minnesota’s vehicle emission standards April 7, they were probably hoping to come away with some clear answers as to how it would impact the state’s ethanol industry.

By the end of the meeting, however, Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar) wondered aloud whether the opposite was true.

“I don’t know if we’ve answered questions or created even more,” said Juhnke, chairman of the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division.

Juhnke’s division met with members of the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee for an informational hearing on HF863. Sponsored by Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park), the bill would adopt California’s “clean car” vehicle emission standards for Minnesota, and would affect new passenger vehicles model 2012 and later. Supporters say the measure is necessary to help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals, but opponents worry that it could damage the state’s thriving ethanol industry.

At the heart of the issue is whether E85 and flex-fuel vehicles could meet the new emission standards. Automakers and auto dealers say it’s not technically feasible, and that has ethanol producers worried that the demand for their product — and the infrastructure to support it — could dry up under the new regulations.

“If automakers quit selling flex-fuel vehicles, our E85 infrastructure will crumble under itself,” said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

Laura Dooley, manager of state government affairs for the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, said that although more than a dozen other states have adopted the California standards, Minnesota would be the first “ethanol state” to do so. She added that many of the same goals in Hortman’s bill will be achieved by the 30 miles per gallon by 2020 fuel efficiency standard recently enacted by the federal government.

“We ask that you allow our experts to work toward achieving (that) aggressive goal without being sidelined with the burden of having to comply with individual state programs designed to meet the same end,” Dooley said.

Supporters say the auto industry is exaggerating the threat to ethanol. David Kittelson, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, said domestic automakers are already planning on installing advanced systems that will allow ethanol-powered vehicles to produce fewer emissions than those powered by regular gas. If that’s the case, Kittelson said, the California standards might actually lead to increased ethanol use.

Hortman agreed, arguing that the California standards actually create an incentive to sell E85 and flex-fuel vehicles by providing credits to dealers who track their customers’ use of ethanol fuel blends.

“Some people could look at the standards and say that there is an incentive for E85 fueling infrastructure, because the only way for manufacturers to get credit for selling flex-fuel vehicles is to show that the vehicles are actually using E85,” Hortman said.

That answer isn’t good enough for Paap, who argued that the mere possibility the bill could harm ethanol makes it unacceptable.

“There seems to be much uncertainty — maybe too much uncertainty,” Paap said.

The bigger picture

Although ethanol was the main focus of the discussion at the hearing, it wasn’t the only topic debated. Each side of the argument presented its own laundry list of reasons why the California standards should or should not be adopted.

Federal law gives states two options on air quality regulations: they can choose either the standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or those set by the California Air Resources Board. Critics say that adopting the California regulations would be tantamount to relinquishing Minnesota’s own authority on the issue, and that it would place the state’s future in the hands of a governing body that has no accountability to Minnesota voters or elected officials whatsoever.

On the other side, Hortman said adopting the California standards would have numerous positive impacts aside from reducing greenhouse gasses, including: increasing the state’s energy independence; lowering the incidence of cardiovascular conditions caused by air pollution; and creating an incentive to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles that would save consumers money at the gas pump. She argued that policymakers need to show leadership on the issue.

“What I would ask you is, do you like seatbelts, and do you like airbags? Because if we left the automotive manufacturers to make that decision for us, we would not have those things,” she said.

The bill currently awaits action by the House Finance Committee. A companion, SF481, sponsored by Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), awaits action by the Senate Business, Industry and Jobs Committee.

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