PUBLISHERS NOTEBOOK: Renewable fuel standards also have a personal component
Thursday, January 23, 2014 8:14 AM
When Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sat down with a few dozen farmers at the Four Daughters Winery in Spring Valley Saturday, he apologized for his attire, which was formal because he had just been at a funeral in Plainview. He said his staff told him to wear "rural, business, casual," but he wasn't sure what that was anyway.
His purpose for traveling to the area last weekend was to talk about potential cutbacks in the renewable fuel standards by the Environmental Protection Agency. If they go through, it would be the first time the standards would have lower targets than are being blended by refiners, reducing the ethanol requirement by more than a billion gallons.
Like Franken, the ethanol industry has had some mixed messages about its image. Criticisms of biofuels, though, are coming from outside sources, particularly the oil industry, but also environmentalists who at one time praised this green, American energy source.
Although the debate about the pros and cons of how green ethanol really will continue, there is also a human side to the issue that Franken heard as various people in the room spoke about their experiences.
Ethanol is credited with helping the agriculture revival in the Midwest, strengthening the economy of rural communities, bringing young people back to the farm and providing jobs, many of them high tech positions.
Lori Feltis of the Stewartville area said the strong farm economy has allowed her sons to come back to work on their family farm. Looking at that from a mother's perspective, rather than purely an economic standpoint, she added that she much prefers them working side by side with her than off fighting in the Middle East to protect our oil interests.
Franken replied that it is also much safer for our country as he joked, "no one ever bombed a corn field." Later, he pointed out an environmental benefit, again joking that there has never been an ethanol spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Eunice Biel, who runs a family farm near Harmony with her husband and son, wrote a lengthy letter to the EPA explaining how their farm uses dried distiller grains, a byproduct of ethanol, in their cattle rations for protein. She also pointed out that they are shareholders in an ethanol plant in Preston.
"We have seen firsthand the positive impact that domestically produced ethanol has on our community by helping to create green jobs and by stimulating local economic activity," she wrote. "Visit any modern day ethanol plant and you will find that today's ethanol industry is an innovative, entrepreneurial, high-tech industry that is uniquely positioned to help America achieve energy independence."
The EPA is proposing to roll back the targets for biofuels, but it isn't because of concerns about the environment. Franken said he spoke to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and she acknowledged all his points about ethanol being a green energy.
The standards were passed by Congress in 2005 and expanded in 2007. Congress hasn't changed it mind, but the EPA is using a loophole in the language that gives the agency the authority to change the rules due to insufficient supply or severe economic harm.
The EPA is citing insufficient supply as the reason to roll back the standards. It isn't that the ethanol plants aren't producing enough ethanol. The problem is the U.S. fuel infrastructure can't absorb enough quantities of gasoline blends with more than 10 percent ethanol.
Franken said the reason the infrastructure is inadequate is because the oil companies see to it that blended pumps aren't put in most stations across the country because they are opposed to ethanol.
"We have a situation where the oil companies control the gas stations," he said.
The issue is more politics than science, so he and other senators are taking the bipartisan issue to the White House. He told the president in a letter that the proposal runs counter to the administration's energy security and economic growth objectives.
Franken and his colleagues, along with the farmers he encouraged to send in letters of opposition, have until Jan. 28 to make their case. After that, the politics will play out in whether the standards are modified or continue as scheduled, with a goal of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022.
For people like Feltis and Biel, it is more than a political issue. It's personal.
And, it should hit home as a personal issue to every individual living in our area because our community is so dependent on agriculture. A change has the potential to drastically alter everything from our environment to our economy to our energy independence to even our schools that depend on families living and working in the area.