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The Obama administration is getting plenty of input on the Farm Belt’s favorite alternative fuel — ethanol. Of specific interest: whether it helps or hurts in the effort to combat climate change.

The White House Office of Management and Budget, the last stop before proposed regulations become public — and often a last chance for interests to weigh in — has had four meetings with “outside parties” on the ethanol greenhouse gas issue in the last four weeks. That’s more meetings with outsiders than OMB has reported on any regulatory issue since President Obama took office.

It’s a continuation of the lobbying frenzy PaperTrail reported on in the waning days of the Bush administration over a scientific analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency. As part of its big new package of regulations on the Renewable Fuels Standard that Congress passed in late 2007, the EPA had come up with a rather bleak analysis of the indirect global land impacts of biofuels like ethanol made from corn — especially when rainforest and grassland are converted to cropland. It’s a position none too popular with those who had been touting ethanol as a climate change solution. Nor with the companies focusing on next-generation biofuels who say their technologies can help make ethanol climate-friendly.

The Bush administration never issued the rule, as Congress had specified it should, by the end of 2008 — letting the controversy pass to the next administration. And on March 13, a dozen Senators led by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Charles Grassley picked up the baton in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, asking her to refrain from including the indirect land use calculations in the rule.

A broad coalition of environmental groups countered on March 19 with a letter calling on the Obama administration “to restore science to its rightful place in our policy” by releasing the full analysis for comment and debate. OMB met with the environmentalists, and had two meetings with the oil industry (not big ethanol fans), as well as with soybean and biotechnology industries over the issue.

Paul Winters, spokesman for the Biotechnology Industries Association, says his group anticipates that the rule will be coming out soon and will include a range of values on the greenhouse gas profile of biofuels. “Everyone agrees that it needs to come out for a comment period and public review,” he says. After that expect a lot more debate.

And ethanol is not the only fuel being scrutinized for its so-called “lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.” The draft climate bill by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., would create a new federal “low carbon fuel standard” and direct the EPA to complete lifecycle analyses for all transportation fuels — including oil.

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