Conservatives Unite Against Biofuels Mandate, With One Notable Exception

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 12: Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist speaks during a press conference discussing the taxation of marijuana businesses outside the U.S. Capitol September 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. The National Cannabis Industry Association is seeking tax reform to change the current policy that requires medical marijuana providers to pay taxes based on gross receipts rather than income.  (National Journal)

Just a few days after a coalition of 20 mostly conservative groups jumped into the debate over the federal biofuels mandate and demanded full repeal, one prominent conservative leader said he's willing to accept something less — for now.

"Do I want repeal? Yes," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "Would something else be an improvement over where we are? Absolutely."

Norquist's comment comes just days after his group and several others — including Americans for Prosperity, the American Energy Alliance, and American Commitment — sent Congress an open letter requesting full repeal of the renewable-fuel standard, and nothing less.

The standard, which requires an increasing amount of biofuels — mostly corn-based ethanol — to be blended with the nation's gasoline supply each year, is currently under review by leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"It has come to our attention that Congress is considering legislation this fall to reform the renewable-fuel standard," the groups wrote. "We, collectively and individually, believe the only reform to this failed government mandate should be to repeal the RFS."

But on Monday, Norquist took a step back from the repeal-only stance. "We should repeal as much of the mandate as quickly as we can, but if we can only get rid of part of it now, we'll get rid of some part of it now," he said. "We'll take that while we work towards repeal."

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., are working on legislation that somehow reforms the policy but doesn't eliminate it altogether.

The task is a difficult one, with different stakeholders pulling in different directions. Refineries and automakers would prefer no blending mandate at all, corn growers want to maximize the use of corn, and agricultural interests are concerned that diverting corn for fuel is raising food prices.

The mandate, created in 2005 and strengthened in 2007 in an attempt to wean the nation off foreign oil, has come under bipartisan scrutiny in the past year in the face of high corn prices and manipulation of the market the policy created.

According to an industry source close to the committee, lawmakers are considering a freeze on the amount of ethanol refiners can blend with gasoline — placing it at or near the current level — along with expanded waiver provisions for states and a weighted credit system for refiners selling biofuels on the basis of the fuel's carbon intensity.

Nothing is set in stone yet. And that's got some otherwise vocal leaders withholding opinions on anything short of a full repeal of the mandate.

"Our long-standing position on this issue has been let's fold up the tent on this program and get rid of it completely," said Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance.

Pyle wouldn't comment on other potential reforms, though. "There hasn't yet been a substantive proposal showing a path to reform, and you can't comment on something you haven't seen," he said. "You hear lots of things but until there's a proposal out there our analysts can review, we're just like everyone else, basing it on rumors and reports."