Tom Steyer Takes a Side in Environmentalists’ Ethanol Fight

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Tom Steyer introduces a panel during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on August 13, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 
National Journal
Ben Geman
Aug. 19, 2014, 2:52 p.m.

Bil­lion­aire cli­mate act­iv­ist Tom Stey­er is in an un­fa­mil­i­ar spot: at odds with many en­vir­on­ment­al­ists on a glob­al-warm­ing policy.

Stey­er’s Nex­t­Gen Cli­mate group is em­bra­cing the fed­er­al bio­fuels man­date, called the re­new­able-fuel stand­ard (RFS), as it works to elect Iowa Demo­crat Bruce Bra­ley in the race to re­place re­tir­ing Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tom Har­kin.

Nex­t­Gen’s latest Iowa ad, un­veiled Tues­day, slams GOP hope­ful Joni Ernst for tak­ing money from oil-in­dustry in­terests that op­pose the RFS, a pop­u­lar policy in farm coun­try that re­quires in­creas­ing amounts of fuels like eth­an­ol and biod­ies­el in the na­tion’s mo­tor fuel mix.

Yet by al­leging Ernst is a poor de­fend­er of bio­fuels””a charge she calls com­pletely false””Nex­t­Gen is trum­pet­ing a policy that some en­vir­on­ment­al­ists say is bad for the plan­et.

As­sess­ing the over­all, or “li­fe­cycle,” cli­mate foot­print of grow­ing and trans­form­ing crops in­to fuel and then burn­ing them is tricky. But eth­an­ol’s crit­ics like Friends of the Earth and the En­vir­on­ment­al Work­ing Group be­lieve tra­di­tion­al corn-based eth­an­ol””which is a sub­stan­tial share of the man­date””is ac­tu­ally worse for the cli­mate than gas­ol­ine when its total li­fe­cycle green­house-gas emis­sions are con­sidered.

But while Stey­er spoke crit­ic­ally of eth­an­ol in a 2010 in­ter­view with For­tune, on Tues­day his Nex­t­Gen Cli­mate group praised the RFS. “The Re­new­able Fuel Stand­ard is an im­port­ant pro­gram that will help trans­form our car­bon in­tens­ive oil-de­pend­ent trans­port­a­tion sec­tor and in­crease the de­vel­op­ment and de­ploy­ment of bio­fuels. The RFS sup­ports 73,000 good-pay­ing, clean en­ergy jobs in Iowa and is help­ing us re­duce our de­pend­ence on fossil fuels,” Nex­t­Gen said.

Right now the vast ma­jor­ity of U.S. bio­fuels pro­duc­tion is corn-based eth­an­ol. The RFS, un­der a 2007 law, re­quires grow­ing use of next-wave bio­fuels like cel­lu­losic eth­an­ol and re­quires them to have a sharply lower cli­mate im­pact that gas­ol­ine. But de­vel­op­ment of those fuels has been far slower than ad­voc­ates had hoped.

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