State of the Union Republican (copy)

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa

WASHINGTON — A provision in the Senate’s surface transportation bill that would help pay for charging and refilling stations for zero- or low-emissions vehicles should also support more stations for biofuels like ethanol, say two Midwestern senators.

The bill would authorize spending on highways and bridge projects for five years. Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Rounds of South Dakota say incentives in the bill would only benefit wealthy people in coastal states who can afford electric-, hydrogen- and natural gas-powered vehicles, while leaving out rural America.

The legislation would authorize $287 billion for the repair of roads and bridges, and other programs to improve transportation systems and reduce emissions. A section of the bill would set aside $1 billion to encourage the construction of charging and fueling stations along certain highways for electric-, hydrogen- and natural gas-powered vehicles.

Ernst and Rounds are promising to push for the bill to also include refilling stations for biofuels such as E15, which is gasoline containing 15% ethanol. Biofuels offer marginal decreases in greenhouse gas emissions — and benefit corn and soybean farmers.

Rounds also advocates incentives for propane-fueling stations.

The goal of the underlying provision in the bill is to encourage the use of those alternative fuel vehicles to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But electric vehicle buyers tend to be richer and already enjoy tax incentives when they buy those cars, Ernst said.

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“Now, we’re going to have the federal government subsidize charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, which are owned in large part by high-earners in coastal states, while at the same time leaving our corn and soybean farmers and biofuel producers on the sidelines,” Ernst said.

Rounds said adding fueling stations for E15 would help more drivers understand that it is a “viable” fuel, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and cut emissions.

“We want to transition to a lower carbon transportation system; you cannot afford to leave any greenhouse emission reductions on the table,” he told lawmakers at a recent markup of the bill by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“If all emissions-reducing fuels aren’t going to be treated equally by this program, then my preference is to do away with the program entirely,” Ernst said.

The senators said they hadn’t found enough support to offer an amendment to the initial version of the bill. Their demands could complicate negotiations as the measure moves through other committees and onto the Senate floor.

“We really need to have our other colleagues working with us to get it done,” Rounds said.

Ernst and Rounds will have to contend with Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming who has opposed biofuels.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, another Iowa Republican and staunch biofuel advocate, is chairman of the Finance Committee, which also will have to mark up the bill. An aide for Grassley said the senator supports the effort by Ernst and Rounds, but would not say whether he would use their demands as a bargaining chip.

Asked whether she would still vote for the surface transportation bill if she failed to plug in her biofuel proposal, Ernst said she would vote for it and find other ways to get it done.

“I’ll just continue working with the committee, and hopefully we can get it included,” Ernst said.

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