Wisconsin Senate Narrowly Defeats Ethanol Mandate

Published May 1, 2006

The Wisconsin Senate on March 9 narrowly defeated legislation that would have required all regular-grade gasoline sold in the state to contain at least 10 percent ethanol.

Amendments Insufficient

The state Assembly in December had approved a similar bill by a vote of 54-38. When it became apparent the bill lacked sufficient votes to pass the Senate, supporters added amendments to the bill to ease some of the concerns of the bill’s opponents. Even in its amended form, however, the bill failed to pass the Senate.

One amendment addressed concerns that ethanol might actually increase air pollution. Although ethanol would reduce some forms of air pollution, it remains unsettled whether ethanol might increase ground-level ozone. To address that concern, proponents of the bill added language that would void the mandate if pollution increased.

Another amendment exempted six southeastern Wisconsin counties that already must use specially formulated gasoline to meet federal clean air requirements.

Support, Opposition Bipartisan

Despite the 17-15 defeat, Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) promised to reintroduce the bill in next year’s session. Gov. Jim Doyle (D) has already given his support to the mandate.

Support for and opposition to the proposed legislation were bipartisan. Wisconsin business associations opposed the bill, fearing the ethanol requirement would raise fuel costs.

A focal point of opposition was government taking away consumer freedom to decide what form of gasoline to choose.

Free Choice Called For

“The free market should be allowed to work,” said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resources at the Cato Institute. “Only mischief and inefficiency can come from government picking winners and losers.

“If ethanol is all that its supporters claim it to be, then it should need no special subsidies or government mandates,” Taylor added.

Wisconsin state Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn) agreed. “The public is not ready to be told what they can and can’t put in their gas tanks,” Kedzie told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for a March 9 story.

Use of ethanol is “growing on its own, it’s finding its own market through regular free-market enterprise, and that’s how it should work,” Kedzie noted. Four ethanol plants currently operate in Wisconsin, and another is being built.

Could Boost Farm Economy

Proponents of the legislation argued ethanol could facilitate energy independence and boost the Midwestern economy.

“We grow corn. We have ethanol plants. Unless we tell the nameless, faceless oil companies, ‘This is what you have to do,’ they’ll tell us what to do,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), according to the March 9 Journal-Sentinel.

“There was a time when ethanol did not make scientific or economic sense, but those times are over,” said Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute. “The technology now exists such that ethanol not only makes environmental sense, it makes economic sense as well.

“We are currently only scratching the surface of ethanol’s full potential,” Lehr added.

Newspaper Changed Position

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which had opposed an ethanol mandate proposed in the 2005 legislative session, reflected some of the shifting sentiment in favor of a mandate.

“Exactly one year ago, we urged legislators to vote against a bill that would have mandated adding 10% ethanol to regular unleaded gasoline sold in Wisconsin,” observed a March 1 house editorial. “If the final version of this bill contains several key provisions that have been proposed by sponsors and others, legislators this time should give it their support.”

The two amendments addressed two of the Journal-Sentinel‘s concerns but did not alleviate concerns that the fossil fuel currently used in the ethanol manufacturing process is roughly equal to the fossil fuel displaced by the 10 percent ethanol mandate. The final bill also did not address the Journal-Sentinel‘s admonition that 20 percent of ethanol should eventually come from sources other than corn, such as switchgrasses.

James Hoare ([email protected]) is an attorney in Syracuse, New York.

For more information …

A March 2002 Environmental Protection Agency factsheet on ethanol is available online at http://www.epa.gov/OMS/consumer/fuels/altfuels/420f00035.pdf.

Information about ethanol-powered automobiles offered by General Motors is available online at http://www.gm.com/company/onlygm/livegreengoyellow/index.html.