A farmer’s plea to the president: Fix our fuel

Source: By Doug Sombke, South Dakota Farmers Union • Posted: Friday, August 30, 2019

The president is in between a rock and hard place; actually, several. His efforts to help the domestic ethanol and agriculture industries by having the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approve year-round E15 have been undermined by the very same EPA. Then again, his efforts to roll back mileage standards to help the auto industry have been undermined by California and the auto industry itself.

First, ethanol. The EPA issued waivers allowing oil refiners to disregard requirements to blend renewable biofuels into gasoline per the Renewable Fuel Standard—a move that is not only bad for the environment and public health, but bad for America’s farmers, many of whom voted for him because they believed his policies would help enhance competition for agriculturally derived products. Late last week, the administration announced slight modifications to soften the waiver process, reallocating some volumes from previous years for ethanol and increasing the opportunity for biodiesel.

None of those actions will provide any measurable relief to farmers. I can say this with certainty—I represent those farmers and am a lifelong farmer myself. I have made it my life’s work to advance the future of family farmers in any way I can.

That’s why I recently wrote a letter to the president suggesting a pathway out from under the proverbial rock. I urged him to direct the EPA to enforce the mandatory provision of the Clean Air Act that requires it to reduce the toxic carcinogens that refiners use to increase octane in the gasoline that powers our cars today.

In doing so, a number of these rocks start falling to the side. Because the Clean Air Act requires reductions in toxics, it would provide a new market for ethanol since it is the highest octane and lowest cost additive in the market today. To some, ethanol is a dirty word. But the reality is that ethanol is a clean and renewable biofuel. Using higher blends in gasoline can decrease carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and save consumers money at the pump. Even Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and former Sen. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) recently came together to urge environmental advocates to take another look at biofuels—including ethanol at 30 percent volume to provide the high octane and low carbon.

And this could extricate the president from a second rock and hard place—the current fuel economy rule that has created a showdown with California and other states. If the trend we are seeing continues and automakers and states agree to standards that exceed federal requirements, the president can give them more tools in the form of higher octane from ethanol. Studies by Ford and others have determined that a premium high-octane fuel made with ethanol would allow them to increase fuel efficiency and reduce tailpipe carbon emissions by 7 percent. There is no need for a fight with California and other states in light of the trend towards efficiency and low carbon.

As stated, the key to unlocking the solution to these intertwined issues is a directive to the EPA to enforce the toxics levels in gasoline. Let the market decide on their octane source and give the market a choice by also removing arbitrary restrictions on volume and distribution of ethanol, which the EPA has refused to do. No requirement to use it. No subsidies. Let ethanol compete and let us as farmers provide the domestic, renewable feedstocks to do so rather than seeing ethanol plants shut down as we import octane from India and South Korea.

And as important as this would be to reducing imports, helping the auto industry, and boosting the economy, perhaps most importantly, it would protect all Americans—including children and other vulnerable groups—from the invisible, but deadly carcinogens caused by gasoline aromatics. Just last week, the New England Journal of Medicine found that being exposed to air pollution—which is exacerbated by gasoline aromatics—is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. I know I’m not alone in wanting my children and grandchildren to have the right to breathe clean, non-toxic air.

It’s time to do what’s right by all Americans—including farmers and their families. Let’s clean up gasoline and save the family farm.

Doug Sombke is president of the Farmers Union Enterprises and the South Dakota Farmers Union and a fourth-generation crop and livestock farmer from South Dakota.