Environmentalists jeopardize schoolchildren safety for corporate profits

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Parents in most communities throughout Oregon are sending their children off to their first week of the 2015-16 school year. They ensure that their children arrive at the bus stop and expect them to return from school safely. However, some seriously flawed public policies are making this process much more complicated and sometimes more dangerous than it needs to be.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley lawmakers have rushed to enact laws to implement biofuels mandates in the name of saving the environment. The involvement of government’s heavy hand in these markets has created winners and losers and political cronyism of the worst kind. The winners are the out-of-state purveyors of “clean” renewable biofuels. The losers are the children in many eastern Oregon school districts.

My office received multiple complaints, during the cold winter of 2014, regarding the unreliability of biofuels from parents, school districts and many business interests in areas east of the Cascade Mountains. The required use of biofuels caused severe fuel problems for school buses, as well as other diesel-powered vehicles and machinery, when wintertime temperatures plunge below zero.

Conventional diesel fuels often gel during extremely cold weather, causing fuel lines and fuel filters to plug. Eastern Oregonians have used diesel additives to successfully prevent and deal with plugged lines and filters for decades.

Diesel blended with biofuels creates an entirely different problem. At around 15 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the bio-lipids in the blended fuels coagulate, essentially returning to their original form as vegetable or animal fats.

This process results in fuel coagulation that renders engines virtually useless until the fuel system is disassembled and cleaned. Significant replacement of damaged parts is often required. Of course, all this occurs during frigid, unforgiving sub-zero winter weather.

I asked Legislative Counsel to draft Senate Bill 164 in response to our constituents’ concerns. The bill was very narrow in scope, and sought merely to create an exemption to the biofuels requirement for people east of the Cascades during the cold winter months.

SB 164 was submitted for consideration in the 2015 regular legislative session. Our efforts to amend those laws were met with politically motivated resistance that could very well endanger schoolchildren in rural parts of the state.

A public hearing was held on the bill last April in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. During that hearing, lobbyists for the biofuels industry and environmental interests claimed to know nothing about any problems associated with the use of these biofuels in extreme weather conditions.

This testimony was in direct conflict with written testimony received by my office from school district officials expressing concern for the safety of schoolchildren. They reported buses failing to start, and much worse, buses whose diesel engines quit running in mid-route, leaving students stranded in sub-zero weather with no source of heat. School district mechanics, as well as fuel suppliers, blame the problems on biofuel additives. Buses with biofuels did not operate properly under extreme conditions, if at all.

Towards the end of every legislative session, all of the policy committees shut down by a date certain so the bills that are still being considered can continue through the process. There are a handful of committees that remain open, including Rules, Revenue and Finance and the budget-writing Ways and Means committee.

Bills that are referred to those committees when the policy committees are shut down are often used as bargaining chips in the session’s final days. SB 164 was passed out of the policy committee, without recommendation as to passage, and referred to the Senate Rules Committee.

By that point in the session, negotiations had begun on a statewide comprehensive transportation package to provide the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) a lifeline out of its pending budget fiasco. The agency is sailing toward an enormous self-described fiscal-cliff beginning as early as 2017.

Those discussions included replacement of the recently enacted Low Carbon Fuel Standard, significant ODOT cost reductions, as well as increases in fuel and transit taxes and vehicle registration fees. I was among the “gang of eight” legislators involved in those talks.

The conceptual framework of SB 164 was included in the transportation package. That package was essentially sabotaged during its only public hearing by ODOT’s director. He testified that his world-class agency modelers had made a grievous 80 percent error in their calculations, which were relied upon by the members of the special committee formed to consider the package.

SB 164 continued to reside in the Senate Rules Committee. Biofuels companies, who benefit financially from the biofuels mandates, continued to fight against SB 164 and the inclusion of similar language in the transportation package. Lobbyists for environmental activist groups joined in active and vocal opposition.

Passing SB 164 into law would have allowed biodiesel-free fuel to be distributed east of the Cascade summit during the four coldest months. I calculated the maximum reduction in the mandated use of biodiesel in Oregon would have been less than three percent, because only about 13 percent of Oregonians reside east of the Cascade summit, and the exemption would only apply during four low-activity winter months.

Nevertheless, my office received an e-mail that included a letter from a California-based ethanol company whose profits apparently depend on the continued forced use of their product in Oregon. A similar letter was received from the DuPont Corporation, expressing concern about the elimination of government decrees that could hurt its bottom line. Neither mentioned concern regarding the safety of eastern Oregon schoolchildren.

Back at the beginning of the environmental movement, it would have been difficult to picture “Earth-first” activists carrying water for companies like DuPont. The chemical giant has been alleged to be responsible for its fair share of the kinds of actions that led to the environmental movement in the first place.

But politics often makes for strange bedfellows. Environmental activists fought hard to help ensure the continued profiteering by the biofuels giants that results from these poor public policies. The session adjourned on July 6, with neither the transportation package nor SB 164 being signed into law.

Coordinated efforts among the biofuels industry and environmental activists ensured that the biofuel mandates still stand. What it means is that we will endure at least one more winter wondering whether school buses will make it to their intended destinations without breaking down on the side of the road due to biodiesel coagulation.

Ideally, policies and laws are crafted to balance different interests. They are intended to benefit most members of the public in their daily lives without causing undo harm to others. I believe the biofuel mandates are among the laws that significantly benefit chosen winners while ignoring the travails of the losers. Large companies like DuPont continue to profit due to government action, while people in rural parts of Oregon struggle needlessly during harsh weather conditions.

It is my hope that the next Legislative Assembly will elevate school safety above crony capitalism and allow amendments to the biofuel mandates before tragedy strikes.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls