My Way for the Highway?

Geography drives altfuel pork-barrel projects, preferences

WASHINGTON - How Congress responds to President Bush's call to reduce foreign oil dependence through more alternative fuel production may have as much to do with geography as partisanship, according to a Scripps Howard report.

Few lawmakers would argue the premise the president articulated in his State of the Union addressthat the nation should get serious about diversifying its energy sources. But to what degree specific fuel technologies, research labs and private companies should benefit from the roughly $1 billion Bush is proposing in the 2007 budgetand [image-nocss] which industries need government protection as technology changesdepends very much on where a House or Senate member lives.

Lawmakers say there is plenty of energy demand to go around, and that they hope to avoid the sort of parochial competition that has fueled a surge in earmarks for pork-barrel projects, lobbyist-related corruption investigations and deficit spending in a time of war.

A comprehensive energy bill in the best interest of most Americans could be devoid of most earmarks, said Representative Jim Costa (D-Calif.), a member of the House committees on Resources, Agriculture & Science. The process should be transparent.

At the same time, everybody knows that everybody else has a horse in the race, said the report.

Ethanol is king in Iowa, Minnesota and other corn-rich Midwest states. Its production is expanding into other states, with the prospect for the cleaner-burning, alcohol-based gasoline substitute to be made more efficiently, cheaply and from other plant matter. Still, lawmakers from nonethanol states complain about historic subsidies to ethanol makers.

Lawmakers from ethanol states complain there has not been enough government investment in pumps for E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline), used in a small but growing number of flex-fuel vehicles, to make it broadly available at gas stations across the country.

We've got to watch out for this zero-sum game: my state, my interest, against yours, said Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). There's enough need to continue oil exploration in this country and windmills and research on fuel cell and do ethanol. The question I raise is why haven't we seen the ethanol infrastructure?

Hydrogen and fuel cell research is under way in varied spots across the country, as are wind and solar projects.

My goal is for South Carolina to become the Detroit of hydrogen, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who co-chairs a Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Caucus with Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). We've kind of gone wild when it comes to ethanol, Graham said of federal subsidies of the past two decades. We're going to have to understand there's more ways than ethanol.

Graham said Congress should share these aims: Reducing foreign oil dependence, protecting the environment and giving automakers enough confidence and direction to invest more in alternative vehicles. I don't think we should be in competition with one another, he said of his colleagues. But he acknowledged, I see kind of a geographic split on what the alternative fuel source should be.

Illinois, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas already are invested heavily in nuclear power. Clean coal research is important to Appalachian states.

Michigan, Ohio and other hubs for automobile production have an interest in protecting thousands of jobs as technology and fuel prices shape what consumers want.

In Alaska, Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Gulf Coast states, protecting oil drilling and refinery jobs is a priority for Democrats and Republicans alike.

We'd like to encourage it to expand because it's domestic production and would decrease dependence on foreign oil, said Brian Richardson, a spokesman for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) Along with that expansion, Landrieu advocates states having rights to split offshore oil revenues with the federal government, as inshore oil states already do.

While alternative energy may sound good to the public, traditional sources still dominate the campaign finance scene, the report said. In the current election cycle, the top 20 recipients of oil and gas industry donations got between $30,526 (Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas) and $95,550 (Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas) and all were Republican, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. The top 20 congressional recipients of money from alternative energy groups this election cycle have received between $200 (Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.) and $2,100 (Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.).

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) urged major oil companies to ensure fuels made of high percentage blends of ethanol are more readily available at their branded gas stations nationwide. Harkin was joined by Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) in a letter prompted by reports of agreements that prohibit retail stations from selling ethanol blends, including E-85, or requiring that ethanol be offered to consumers at separate fuel pump islands away from the branded fuel offerings.

Harkin asked that oil companies review and reform any such policies so that ethanol is conveniently offered to motoring consumers at stations across the country. Drivers want to use ethanol blended fuel, and they should not have to go to great pains to find it, he said. Unfortunately, there appear to be roadblocks impeding the sale of ethanol, preventing drivers from finding renewable fuels when filling up at the gas pump.

He recently introduced legislation to ensure that within a decade all vehicles sold in the United States are flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs), able to use regular gasoline or various ethanol blends up to E85. With consumer demand growing for ethanol as well as FFVs, making ethanol more widely available at the pump is a critical element toward increasing use of this environmentally friendly, cost-competitive renewable fuel, he said.

By expanding driver access to ethanol, we can significantly decrease our reliance on foreign oil while stimulating demand for home grown ethanol, Harkin said. That's a great deal for America's drivers, the rural economy and the environment.