As a congressional joint conference seeks to reconcile Senate and House versions of a proposed energy bill, renewable fuels proponents remain locked in the ongoing debate with opponents over the efficacy of ethanol and biodiesel fuels.

The argument has often had the mood and temper of a playground dispute. One side will say it's so, and the other side will say it's not either. Each has issued its own studies, analyses and models to prove it is, too. In general, congressional lawmakers have seemed confused by it all, but now a bipartisan coalition in Congress favors inclusion of a renewable fuels standard (RFS) in the energy package.

The White House has also endorsed a retooled RFS, the crux of the debate, and by early October the odds seemed to favor its inclusion in the final legislation.

The conference panel is faced with decisions about conflicting proposals from the House, which hasn't been so sympathetic to “biofuels,” and from the Senate, which has been friendlier. The RFS language in the House version of a new energy bill more nearly reflects the fears and reservations of urban lawmakers and, specifically, the stance of California.

In the face of a federally mandated phase-out of methyl butyl ether (MTBE) and other petroleum-based oxygenates, that state continues its fight against ethanol in federal court. California wants a waiver from the federal requirement that grain-based oxygenates replace MTBE and ETBE additives.

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) and the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) have filed a joint brief with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals supporting the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to deny the state of California's request for a waiver from the federal reformulated gasoline (RFG) oxygenate standard.

Following EPA's denial of the request, California sued to overturn the ruling, and NCGA and RFA entered the suit as interveners on behalf of EPA.

“Ethanol producers and corn growers have stepped up to the plate to provide affordable and environmentally safe renewable fuel to the state of California,” said NCGA's vice president of public policy, Jon Doggett. “We urge California to recognize this viable source of fuel.”

Bob Dinneen, RFA president, says California's pursuit of an oxygenate waiver through the courts is quickly becoming a moot point anyway.

“Nearly 70 percent of California gasoline will be blended with ethanol in 2003,” he said. “But as long as they persist in pursuing a waiver through spurious attacks on ethanol's clean air performance, we will continue to set the record straight.

“Based on solid scientific evidence, the EPA denied California's waiver request.”

He noted that in fact, both the House and Senate earlier this year turned back by wide margins California's attempts in Congress to end the oxygenate requirement. “Now, we feel confident the third and final branch of government will do the same,” Dinneen said.

California and other large urban areas want no oxygenate requirements at all.

After the EPA denied the waiver, California countered in federal court that the state's air quality modeling supported the waiver request. EPA's responding brief, however, noted: “Significantly, EPA found California's analysis of air quality impacts seriously lacking.”

California, the EPA brief claimed, “did not model air quality impacts at all, but instead made overly simplistic assumptions that allowed it to dismiss both” carbon monoxide and motor engine emissions. The EPA said the California model relied on predicted noxious emission decreases to support its waiver request.

“The NCGA and RFA assembled scientific data supported by the EPA decision,” said Doggett. “This is not a political decision, it is based on law and science.”

bpryor@primediabusiness.com