It's a Good Time to Be The Hill's Mr. Ethanol

David A. Starr, a lobbyist, took his coffee-roasting hobby out of the garage and into an Annandale shop.
David A. Starr, a lobbyist, took his coffee-roasting hobby out of the garage and into an Annandale shop. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Photo crews are not chasing Robert Dinneen down the hall, but, for a lobbyist, he's a very popular guy.

Lately he has been testifying before various congressional committees about once a week, which beats any Cabinet officer or rock star you can think of. And lawmakers are constantly buttonholing him, not the other way around.

Dinneen, 47, is president of the Renewable Fuels Association, the chief promoter of the capital's new hot commodity -- ethanol, the leading clean-fuel alternative to oil.

Congress is falling over itself to find ways to help Dinneen's members produce more ethanol, which is a flammable grain-alcohol fuel additive. The combination of $3-a-gallon gasoline, a desire to be less dependent on foreign oil sources and rising fears about global warming have made the hunt for a low-polluting, homegrown energy source a near obsession on Capitol Hill.

More than 145 bills have been introduced in Congress this year to help boost ethanol production. No other subject has garnered that much attention.

The focus has kept Dinneen busier than ever in his two-decade career with the association. "This is a real exciting time," he said. "It's been pretty phenomenal."

Phenomenal is a great distance from his early days in the game. When Dinneen left the Hill in 1987 after serving as an aide to then-Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), ethanol was a backwater issue supported almost entirely by a few Farm Belt lawmakers eager to find an extra market for corn.

Dinneen learned about the job opening for the association's lone lobbyist -- the other two staffers were the receptionist and the president -- from a friend at the National Corn Growers Association. Dinneen remembers his friend telling him: "Bob, I don't know if this industry will be around five years from now, but we'll have a good time working on it."

The industry not only survived, but it eventually thrived, thanks in large measure to hefty federal subsidies that the association advocated. Dinneen took over as the association's president in 2000, and his staff is at six and growing.

The industry is growing even faster. Eighty-one new ethanol plants are under construction, a trend that in a couple years will double the output of ethanol. Ethanol is no longer made solely from corn, nor does it come just from the Midwest. Plants have also sprouted in California, Texas and even New York, where a shuttered Miller Brewing plant is being retrofitted for the purpose.

President Bush put ethanol on the map by highlighting it in his State of the Union address. Presidential candidates, eager to court voters in the corn state of Iowa, have also pushed hard. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who once opposed federal support for the biofuel, reversed herself and endorsed bigger ethanol incentives than she previously voted against. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is still an ethanol-subsidy skeptic, enthuses about the need for more production.

Lawmakers who are not running for president love ethanol, too, and have made its chief spokesman sort of a celebrity. "I've been doing this for 20 years," Dinneen said. "It does seem odd to be an overnight success."


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