U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson has joined several other Midwest senators in introducing federal legislation they say is aimed at protecting the region's biofuels industry.

The Nebraska Democrat has put his name behind one measure intended to boost ethanol consumption and another that would prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from implementing a rule he says could hinder biofuels production.

The first measure — introduced Tuesday by Nelson, Sens. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., John Thune, R-S.D, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa — would direct the EPA to allow gasoline to contain up to a 15 percent ethanol blend. Ten percent is the current maximum allowed to be sold in the U.S.

E85 fuel, which consists of up to 85 percent ethanol, would not be affected because it is used only in "flex-fuel" vehicles equipped to handle it.

Boosting allowable ethanol percentages could mean an economic boost to Nebraska and other Corn Belt states, as corn is the preferred base for making ethanol in the U.S.

Nelson said the measure also could help fulfill federal rules that call for as much as 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be used annually nationwide by 2022 to meet clear air targets. It also would prevent ethanol production from outpacing the amount of ethanol-blended gasoline allowed, he said.

Although some have suggested higher ethanol blends could affect automobile performance, Nelson said many experts believe vehicles that can operate on E10 also can run on 15 percent blends.

Nelson said the EPA has been dragging its feet on the idea.

"We've had meetings with them. I've attended meetings with them. The staffs of the various senators have had meetings with them, and nothing is forthcoming," he said.

The move to increase ethanol content in gasoline was requested in March by an ethanol promotion group. The EPA says the agency is still reviewing some 13,000 comments on the proposal, and that it has until Dec. 1 to grant or deny the request.

"EPA is already working as fast as it can, along with the department of Energy, to examine all of the engine testing information so that we can issue an answer to this waiver as soon as possible," said EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy.

Nelson, Grassley and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also introduced another measure Tuesday that seeks to delay for at least one year a rule proposed by the EPA that would penalize U.S. biofuels producers for environmentally-damaging land use in other countries, such as clearing land for crops to make up for the loss of U.S. crops to biofuels production.

The EPA has suggested the rule is necessary because as the United States refines more crops into biofuel, countries like Brazil may plow up their own carbon-reducing forests and grasslands to produce crops for food or fuel to take up the slack.

The senators argue such calculations are based on flawed science. Nelson said the agency is overstepping its bounds with the regulation.

"The model that the EPA cobbled together to measure indirect land use is far from scientific. It's controversial and isn't supported by the facts," Grassley said in a statement this week. "It defies common sense that the EPA would try to blame an Iowa farmer for the actions of Brazilian farmers and developers."

Andy, the EPA spokeswoman, said enacting the senators' measure would also mean the EPA would not be able to issue biofuels production mandates for 2010.

"This amendment would actually hurt the biofuels industry including the ethanol industry," she said.

Both of the senators' measures were introduced as amendments to a Senate appropriations bill for Interior Department funding currently under consideration.

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