Energy bill calls for ethanol to replace gas

/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawmakers moved ahead Wednesday on a broad energy bill to replace one-quarter of the nation’s gasoline with ethanol.

A bid by coal-state senators to promote liquefied coal as a motor fuel substitute stalled amid a debate over global warming.

The overall legislation as developed Wednesday by a Senate committee would require a sevenfold increase in ethanol production to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022. The proposal also would authorize loan guarantees and other incentives for ethanol research and plant construction.

Senate leaders have said they would like to take up the legislation before Memorial Day as the first major energy initiative since Democrats assumed control of Congress.

The measure would establish an overall goal of curtailing future gasoline use by as much as 40 percent below what it otherwise is expected to be in 2030.

The centerpiece would mean aggressively replacing gasoline with ethanol. This currently is made from corn but in the future also is expected to be produced from cellulosic feedstock such as switchgrass, which is a hardy prairie grass in great abundance, as well as wood chips and corn stems.

The Senate bill includes requirements for more efficient appliances and light bulbs, and supports production of more fuel efficient cars. The legislation had wide bipartisan support ahead of a vote expected Wednesday in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

But senators from coal-states questioned why the bill omitted any reference to liquefied coal. They said this alternative fuel and technology is well known and could supplant billions of gallons of gasoline with a widely available domestic fuel source.

“Here’s an opportunity to vote for U.S. coal and against Saudi oil,” said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Sens. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and Jim Bunning, R-Ky., offered a proposal to require production of 21 billion gallons a year of diesel, made from coal, by 2022 — the same year the 36 billion gallon ethanol mandate would go into effect.

The use of coal to replace gasoline would only “enhance the energy security of the United States,” Thomas said. He said coal is the country’s most abundant energy resource.

But converting coal to a liquid fuel itself requires large amounts of energy and produces more carbon dioxide, the leading “greenhouse” gas linked to global warming, than conventional gasoline.

The committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, urged greater study into the connection between liquefied coal and climate change. He cautioned against shifting the focus of the bill away from renewable biofuels such as ethanol.

The committee, along a 12-11 party-line vote, rejected the liquefied coal amendment. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed the issue would be revived when the bill gets to the full Senate.

Bingaman and other opponents of Thomas’ amendment said that before coal is to play a major role in replacing gasoline, there is a need for more assurance that the carbon dioxide from coal conversion will be captured and contained.

Otherwise “we’re setting ourselves up for a disaster. ... The carbon issue is that important,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

The bill would authorize increased spending for carbon sequestration research and proposes $500 million over five years on large-scale carbon capture and storage demonstration projects involving coal.

The Senate bill would also:

  • Expedite new energy efficiency standards for an array of appliances from dishwashers and refrigerators to electric motors and advanced, energy-saving lighting systems.
  • Authorize new research into development of electric vehicles, including “plug-in” hybrids that would use conventional power grids, and a $1.3 billion, decade-long program in vehicle battery research.
  • Require the government to buy more fuel efficient vehicles, use more electricity from renewable energy sources and cut energy consumption in federal buildings by 30 percent by 2015.