If there was a referee in the fight over a federal biofuels mandate, it would be Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill.
First elected to Congress in 1996, Shimkus represents a sprawling district in Southern Illinois that is home or close to home to at least two oil refineries and five ethanol plants. These industries are at opposite ends of a bitter fight over what, if anything, Congress should do to address concerns about the renewable-fuel standard, a federal mandate that refineries must meet by blending biofuels—mostly corn-based ethanol—with gasoline. Illinois is also the country's No. 2 producer of corn. You can drive three hours in Shimkus's district, which spans 200 miles up, down, and across, and see nothing but cornfields. The corn and biofuels industries want Congress to defend the mandate, while the oil, livestock, and food industries want to repeal it altogether.
"I'm in the middle of this fight. They're both throwing blows, and I'm getting caught in the middle and taking a few," Shimkus said in a recent interview in his office. "I could have easily just stayed out of it and put my head in the sand. But I guess you get to a point. Why did I do it? Because they are my friends. If you do nothing, someone gets harmed."
He wasn't too friendly to his friends at a hearing last week. Offering the most candid comments of any member on the panel, Shimkus chastised the heads of four major trade associations—the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the Renewable Fuel Association, and the Advanced Biofuels Association—for not moving from their entrenched positions of all or nothing. When he asked the executives whether they would be willing to find middle ground to reform the policy instead of repeal it altogether or maintain the status quo, he cut them off as soon as they reverted to talking points.
"We're back to the same thing," Shimkus said, interrupting Jack Gerard, CEO of API, the country's most powerful oil lobbying group. "If you keep these positions," Shimkus told the four executives, "nothing is going to get done, and nobody is going to be happy."
Stakeholders are familiar with the sometimes harsh candor Shimkus displayed at last week's hearing.
"We've had those conversations behind closed doors a number of times, and I understand," Gerard told National Journal after the hearing. "He's caught right in the middle of this debate with both constituencies. He's clearly one who's anxious to find a resolution and try to find a middle ground."
When it comes to Shimkus, Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, a major ethanol trade group, agrees with Gerard (perhaps the only thing these two men agree on).
"I think [Shimkus has] been fair. He's asked some tough questions of everyone," Buis said. "He's been around long enough to remember the history of how this industry grew."
How Shimkus proceeds on this issue is critical. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., has tasked Shimkus to lead a gang of three other GOP committee members in finding the "sweet spot" on policy reform, as Shimkus describes it. The other three are Reps. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Lee Terry of Nebraska, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
"Upton knows that, with respect to the RFS, nothing is going to pass the Energy and Commerce Committee unless John Shimkus is OK with it," said Mike McKenna, president of lobbying firm MWR Strategies. "A lot of people are looking at [Shimkus] for cues of what's acceptable and what's not," added McKenna, who has close ties to the Republican leadership and whose clients include oil conglomerate Koch Industries.
Shimkus has a steep challenge to find that sweet spot, and he began to confront it as early as January. Shimkus recalls one of the first meetings he had on the biofuels mandate, which included Scalise (who also happens to be his roommate), and Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Bill Johnson, R-Ohio., with executives from Chevron, a major oil company opposed to the mandate.
"Steve goes into this 'rah, rah repeal,' " Shimkus recalled of the February meeting. "I think he was clueless about where I was.… So I had to immediately say, 'OK, let's talk this through.' " Blackburn signaled she had the same position as Scalise. Johnson said he was more aligned with Shimkus.
"The importance of that was to send a signal to the group we're talking to that Republicans are not all the same on this issue," Shimkus said of his meeting with Chevron.
Indeed, unlike most other energy and environment issues, Republicans are not unified on this policy. In a rarity, party politics take a backseat as constituency concerns drive lawmakers' positions on the mandate.
Shimkus's task is twofold: Find the sweet spot on policy reform and also help educate his House Republican colleagues about the mandate, which is an immensely complicated policy that when established in a 2005 energy bill was aimed at weaning the nation from foreign oil. Half the members in office now weren't in Congress in 2005 and 2007 when the mandate was strengthened. Shimkus is worried that interest groups, with their entrenched positions, have already gotten to many of his colleagues.
"We don't have time," Shimkus said of educating his colleagues. "How do you go out to 200 members and go through an education process when you're trying to develop the compromise? The challenge is, [interest groups] are getting to them early. They're climbing all over them, too."
Is Shimkus hopeful that the House, and eventually also the Senate, can find a compromise on the renewable-fuel standard?
"I hope so," Shimkus says with muted laughter. "Why else would I put myself through this?"
This article appears in the July 29, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.