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Senators not waiting for EPA on ethanol rule

It's been a wild week in the world of ethanol. The gasoline additive has been blamed for stalling out dozens of Baltimore police cars, while rare good news came out of the developing industry. And on Capitol Hill, a place as important to the biofuels business as any cornfield, Midwest senators and the EPA fought a battle to a draw.

On the industry front, an official from the world's largest grain processor -- ADM of Illinois -- said increased yields is more than meeting the demand for ethanol even as the fuel consumes for more than a third of the U.S. corn crop. This follows a few years of reports that biofuels would cut into the world's food supply as populations grow.

At the same time, Joule Biotechnologies of Massachusetts reports it has engineered organisms that feed on carbon dioxide and excrete ethanol and biodiesel. While ethanol made in a lab would compete on the open market with ethanol made from grains, such an enticing development on this front will help keep the entire industry moving forward.

That good news helped balance out bad PR that is sure to reverberate for months after more than 200 Baltimore police cars suffered engine trouble and about 70 had to be taken out of service due to gasoline that contained an excess amount of ethanol. While the exact blend has not yet been disclosed, this incident will almost certainly color an ongoing debate in Washington.

Members of Congress from corn-producing states, including South Dakota, have been pushing the EPA to increase the amount of ethanol in standard blended gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent, from E10 to E15. Almost everybody else -- from the auto industry to environmentalists -- has been fighting this idea.

After a comment period ended in July, some senators grew tired of waiting for a decision, not officially due until Dec. 1. A group of senators, including South Dakota's Tim Johnson and John Thune, sponsored an amendment to a spending bill that would have upped the blend to E15, EPA's ruling notwithstanding.

At the same time, Johnson, Thune and other senators sponsored another amendment that would halt EPA's intentions to include changing land use around the world when calculating total emissions of biofuels. Called "indirect land use," the method of calculation would consider whether a farmer in Brazil converts part of a rain forest into cropland. If that were to happen, the amount of pollution blamed on biofuels would increase since rain forests help reduce carbon dioxide levels. (Indirect indeed, right?)

The senators withdrew their amendments after EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that however EPA decides to measure pollution for biofuels, it will reflect "significant uncertainties" when it comes to indirect land use.

Meanwhile, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will visit the Aberdeen area on Monday, Oct. 5. A spokeswoman for South Dakota's lone member of the U.S. House, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, said the congresswoman will discuss moving to E15 with the secretary.

Denise Ross publishes She writes from Rapid City about South Dakota's congressional delegation.