Ethanol bill heads to full Senate, prompts debate over coal as fuel

Thursday, May 3, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Senators moved ahead Wednesday on legislation to replace one-quarter of the nation's gasoline with ethanol and set a goal of cutting gasoline consumption nearly in half by 2030.

Coal-state lawmakers tried to promote liquefied coal as a motor fuel substitute, but their effort stalled amid a debate over global warming.

The energy bill, passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a 20-3 vote, would require a sevenfold increase in ethanol production, to 36 billion gallons a year, by 2022.

The proposal would authorize loan guarantees and other incentives for ethanol research and plant construction.

Senate leaders have said they would like to take up the bill before Memorial Day as the first major energy initiative since Democrats took control of Congress in January.

The measure would establish an overall goal of reducing future gasoline use by as much as 45 percent below what it otherwise is expected to be in 2030. That would happen through a combination of more biofuels, such as ethanol, and production of more gas-electric hybrid vehicles and other fuel-saving measures.

The centerpiece of the bill is replacing gasoline with ethanol. Ethanol currently is made from corn.

Future sources include cellulosic feedstock such as switchgrass, a hardy prairie grass in great abundance, and wood chips and corn stems.

The Senate bill includes requirements for more efficient appliances and light bulbs, and supports production of "plug-in" gas-electric hybrids that are less dependent on fossil fuel.

Reflecting the bill's wide bipartisan support, eight of the committee's 11 Republicans joined all 12 Democrats in sending the bill to the full Senate.

Several senators from coal-states failed in their bid to require use of liquefied coal as alternative motor fuel. They said the technology to make diesel from coal is well known and could supplant billions of gallons of conventional diesel with a widely available domestic fuel source.

"Here's an opportunity to vote for U.S. coal and against Saudi oil," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Sens. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and Jim Bunning, R-Ky., offered a proposal to require production of 21 billion gallons a year of diesel, made from coal, by 2022. That is the same year that the 36 billion gallon ethanol mandate would go into effect.

The use of coal to replace gasoline would only "enhance the energy security of the United States," Thomas said.

His amendment was rejected along a 12-11 party-line vote, after a lengthy debate involving coal and climate change.

Nevertheless, Republicans and Democrats agreed the issue would return in the full Senate.

Converting coal to a liquid fuel itself requires large amounts of energy and produces more carbon dioxide, the leading "greenhouse" gas linked to global warming, than conventional gasoline.

The committee chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and other opponents of Thomas' amendment said that before coal is to play a major role in replacing gasoline, greater assurance is needed that the carbon dioxide from coal conversion will be captured and contained.

Otherwise "we're setting ourselves up for a disaster. ... The carbon issue is that important," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

The bill would authorize increased spending for carbon sequestration research and proposes $500 million over five years on large-scale carbon capture and storage demonstration projects involving coal.

The Senate bill also would:

--Expedite new energy efficiency standards for an array of appliances from dishwashers and refrigerators to electric motors and advanced, energy-saving lighting systems.

--Authorize new research into development of electric vehicles, including "plug-in" hybrids that would use conventional power grids, and a $1.3 billion, decade-long program in vehicle battery research.

--Require the government to buy more fuel efficient vehicles, use more electricity from renewable energy sources and cut energy consumption in federal buildings by 30 percent by 2015.

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