Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) speaks to a crowd at the Four Daughters Winery Saturday as a group of interested farmers and Minnesota Corn Growers Association officials gathered to talk about proposed changes to the renewable fuel standards.  DAVID PHILLIPS/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) speaks to a crowd at the Four Daughters Winery Saturday as a group of interested farmers and Minnesota Corn Growers Association officials gathered to talk about proposed changes to the renewable fuel standards. DAVID PHILLIPS/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
As the comment period on a proposed rule to amend the renewable fuel standards (RFS) nears the deadline, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) met with area farmers, members of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and other interested people Saturday at the Four Daughters Winery in Spring Valley to discuss what can be done to stop the cutback.

The RFS, passed by Congress in 2005 and expanded in 2007, requires annually increasing amounts of biofuels, primarily corn-based ethanol but also cellulosic ethanol, to be blended into fuel sold in the United States. However, the law gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to adjust the amounts due to insufficient supply or severe economic harm.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has proposed significant reductions of the amount required to be blended in 2014. The EPA has issued a draft proposal of a biofuels mandate of 15.21 billion gallons, a more than 8 percent cut from the 2013 rule. This is the first time the EPA has proposed a cut in the rule.

The EPA has defined "insufficient supply" as the inability of the U.S. fuel infrastructure to absorb significant quantities of gasoline blends with more than 10 percent ethanol.

Franken told the crowd assembled Saturday afternoon that the infrastructure isn't there because the oil companies don't want to put the blended pumps in and they have a lot of influence on service stations across the country.

"We have a situation where the oil companies control the gas stations," he said.

The issue is a "chicken and egg" circle leading to the question of what comes first, he explained. The EPA says it needs to cut back on the standard because the infrastructure isn't there, but if the standards are reduced, there will be little incentive for the infrastructure to grow.

"It's extremely frustrating," he said.

The issue isn't a partisan issue, as Franken said he stands with Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and other Republicans. Rather, the political divide is between politicians in the Midwest and those on the coasts where production of ethanol doesn't have the same economic benefit.

That's why he is surprised that President Barack Obama, a former senator from Illinois, isn't opposing the change. He has met with the president and also wrote a letter to him that stated the proposal is counter to the administration's energy security and economic growth objectives.

Chris Hanson, plant manager at Poet Biorefining in Preston, told Franken "what really staggers me is the Environmental Protection Agency is doing this."

Franken agreed, noting that in his meeting with McCarthy, she acknowledged all his points about ethanol being a green energy. That is why he has shifted his focus to the White House.

In the Democratic caucus meeting with the White House, he told the president that the proposed rules are not only "going in the wrong direction," this is "exactly the wrong time to send a message" because new cellulosic and advanced biofuel plants, included three in Iowa, are expecting to ramp up commercial scale production.

Economic activity surrounding the RFS is growing, but the industry needs more venture capital, he added. The cutbacks send a message that could reduce investment in the industry because it creates uncertainty.

Franken told the group that their letters matter because elected officials do take them into consideration. He said Obama reads 10 letters every night and he would like at least two or three of them to be about the RFS.

He also said the letters would be more effective if they had personal information, rather than a mere form letter.

Several people in attendance had personal stories to tell Franken, including how much the ethanol industry has aided the rural economy, brought young people back to the farm and increased farm income.

Lori Feltis speaking from a mother's point of view rather than just an economic standpoint, told Franken her family farm near Stewartville now includes her sons working side-by-side with them, something she would much prefer than having them go off to fight in the Middle East.

"No one ever bombed a corn field," quipped Franken, who added that Minnesota also has no oil wells, meaning most of its fuel comes from outside the state.

Eunice Biel, who is part of a partnership with her husband and son near Harmony, had a lengthy letter with her that told how they 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."

Minnesota Corn Growers Association Executive Director Tim Gerlach spoke about the importance of RFS to his organization and showed Franken a couple boxes filled with letters ready to be delivered to the EPA and other officials.

Olmsted County Commissioner Matt Flynn asked how local government could help. Franken's staff provided information on sample resolutions and other information for him to take back to his board.

The 60-day comment period ends Jan. 28. Franken pointed out that is the deadline to receive, not the postmark date. He added that email messages are also an option.

Farm bill

Franken also spoke briefly about the farm bill that he feels is close to completion. He said that they "are on the one-inch line and every days it's half the distance to the goal," although he remains optimistic that the goal line will be reached soon.

"Minnesota farmers don't just want a five-year farm bill, they need it," he said. Many jobs are tied to agriculture in Minnesota and the bill would create more certainty for farmers in the state.