Lobbyists and advertising agencies working for the oil industry squandered millions of dollars over the last decade to derail U.S. biofuel production. They vilified ethanol, even as refiners relied on it as an octane-booster for 97 percent of all U.S. gasoline. And they attacked lawmakers who sought to strengthen U.S. biofuel production under the Renewable Fuel Standard, first enacted in 2005.
Despite those efforts, America now leads the world in biofuel production, oil imports are down, and the effort is saving motorists about $142 in gasoline expenses annually, according to the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. American ethanol also reduces carbon emissions by 43 percent or more — even when accounting for the footprint of farming operations — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Perhaps most importantly, crop-based biofuels now support hundreds of thousands of jobs in rural America, driving billions in revenue for hard-working farmers who have been hammered by unfair trade barriers overseas.
By all rights, that anti-biofuel campaign should have wrapped up in December 2016, when regulators dialed up conventional — typically corn-based — ethanol targets to 15 billion gallons, the legal maximum. Since then, gasoline consumption has continued to rise, while the ethanol requirement remains more or less flat.
True, there is a secondary, cellulosic ethanol target in place. It promotes research and development in the next generations of biofuels, but the current requirement of 0.288 billion gallons makes it a drop in the bucket, relatively speaking. Americans consume 143 billion gallons of gasoline each year.
Yet, two years later, those same oil-backed lobbyists and advertising agencies are still waging a costly campaign with no clear goal beyond destroying regulatory certainty for U.S. farmers and biofuel producers who have invested billions into U.S. energy production, just as Congress intended.
Corn-based ethanol targets are capped at current levels — there are no big changes to fight — and even the most out-of-touch fossil fuel advocates must acknowledge that neither political party would be willing to destroy the rural economy just to claw back a few gallons of market share for wealthy refiners.
All that begs a simple question: Why has the anti-biofuel gang fabricated so much noise, and squandered so much political capital, in an effort to drive a wedge between this administration and farm families? The whole campaign seems divorced from any serious policy agenda.
The answer, it seems, is that after 13 years, the anti-biofuel lobby has taken on a sort of second life. All those ads, front groups, pay-for-play “science” and lobbying groups are big business, and the oil industry has deep pockets. So long as executives are willing to cut checks, the influence peddlers in Washington will keep selling one more big push against the competition.
For an administration and a Congress that just want to enforce the law and keep their promises to farmers, there’s only one solution: Policymakers need to stop playing along. They need to send a clear signal to the petroleum industry that the RFS is off the menu and urge lobbyists to focus on less-destructive policy goals that don’t require cannibalizing jobs in rural America.
President Donald Trump tried to do that from the beginning. He made his support for farmers, ethanol and the RFS abundantly clear on the campaign trail. But, early on, the Environmental Protection Agency was temporarily pulled off track by an administrator more interested in courting his own Oklahoma backers than serving the president’s agency. The oil industry saw an opportunity to strike, setting off a clash that threatened the president’s brand across the entire farm belt, while achieving nothing.
Today, there’s a new administrator at the EPA. If he doesn’t want to be pulled apart in the decades-old tug-of-war between oil companies and rural America, he just needs to declare the president’s promises unbreakable and start enforcing the law without indulging endless demands from the refining sector. The president’s constituents in rural America would celebrate an end to the threats against farm income, and those on the other side — already profiting handsomely under this White House — will find a more productive use for their advocacy dollars.
Dan Kleiss is the mayor of Tuscola, Illinois.
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