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Chicago Ethanol Bill Has Been Big For Lobbyists

By Hal Dardick

Major U.S. industries have lined up heavy hitting lobbyists over influential Ald. Ed Burke’s proposal to require scores of Chicago gas stations to offer fuel with higher levels of ethanol.

The battle has been brewing for months, pitting big agriculture against big petroleum, with tens of thousands of dollars going to city lobbyists and publicity campaigns. It could come to a head Monday, when Burke plans to call for a vote on the proposal during a meeting of the Finance Committee that he chairs, his spokesman said.

The 14th Ward alderman’s proposal would require larger city gas stations to have pumps that dispense so-called E15 gasoline — which has up to 15 percent ethanol, compared with the 10 percent standard at existing pumps. No other major U.S. city has taken that step, according to City Hall officials and academic experts.

As soon as it was clear Burke was planning to call for a vote, lobbyists began working the phones and making trips to City Hall to convince aldermen and aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel that their side should prevail, sources said.

How much either side convinced Emanuel’s team remained unclear. “There’s been a lot of debate on it, and we’re studying the impact it would have on consumers, small businesses and the environment,” Emanuel spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier said late last week.
City records show that Growth Energy, which represents the ethanol industry, and Americans United for Change, which promotes ethanol, have paid at least $24,000 to high-powered City Hall lobbyists this year. They include Michael Kasper, who has represented the mayor on electoral issues and done work for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago; Tim Dart, brother of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart; Michael Alvarez, a commissioner on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District; and Marilyn Katz, a longtime city lobbyist.

The Illinois Petroleum Council and American Petroleum Institute have paid at least $11,500 to Michael Doerrer, a onetime aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley; and lobbyist Mary Kay Minaghan. Also opposing the E15 requirement are the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Opponents also have hired at least three high-profile firms to try to frame the issue with reporters and taken out full-page newspaper ads.
Burke maintains that E15 would lower fuel costs and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, citing an Argonne National Laboratory study to back up the environmental assertion. Nevertheless, both assertions remain the subject of much debate.

Opponents say that the fuel could harm older vehicles, boats and lawn mowers should someone make the mistake of using it in those machines. They also contend drivers won’t necessarily get lower E15 prices at the pump and would have to burn more of it to go as far.

And environmentalists differ on whether corn-based ethanol actually lowers overall levels of carbon dioxide that damage Earth’s ozone layer.

Burning fuel with ethanol only reduces carbon dioxide emissions by a small fraction of a percentage, “making it pretty indistinguishable from when you burn gasoline,” said John DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute.

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