National Farmers Union set to ‘play offense’ on ethanol

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 24, 2017

The National Farmers Union is tired of playing defense on ethanol policy.

NFU President Roger Johnson today announced that the farm organization is poised to take a more aggressive approach, enlisting its newly hired biofuel adviser and lobbyist, Anne Steckel, to promote renewable fuels on Capitol Hill.

“Our members are saying stop playing defense. Play offense,” Johnson said in a conference call with reporters.

For Steckel, most recently vice president of federal policy at the National Biodiesel Board, that means pushing against the oil and gas industry by advocating for higher-ethanol fuels as part of the federal renewable fuel standard.

Johnson and Steckel outlined their new approach, saying it will focus on lobbying rather that public advertising, for instance, and will seek to reverse what they see as a yearslong trend that has put the renewable fuel industry on the defensive with lawmakers and policy writers.

Their first target will be to chip away at the “blend wall,” the threshold of 10 percent ethanol that’s mixed into gasoline. The oil and gas industry, as well as other critics of the renewable fuel standard, say exceeding that level would hurt engines and speed the diversion of sensitive land into corn production — positions that ethanol advocates say are overstated or false.

Johnson said the blend wall is a concept invented by oil and gas interests that initially supported the mixing of biofuels into gasoline as an alternative to environmentally damaging MTBE but were caught off-guard by ethanol’s continued rise.

“It’s basically a creation that the oil industry talks about,” Johnson said. “Most of that is a bunch of bunk.”

Biofuel has helped corn production surge to 5 billion bushels a year just for energy production, more than double the level before the RFS, Johnson said.

Steckel said she’ll also keep watch over congressional efforts to scale back the RFS. Lawmakers such as Oklahoma Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford and Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Bill Flores (R-Texas)are pursuing that goal, including capping ethanol at 9.7 percent of gasoline demand.

“We’ll be looking for legislative wins,” Steckel said.

Ethanol has received mixed signals from Congress and federal officials. While opponents of the RFS have been pushing legislation and conducting hearings on Capitol Hill, the Trump administration has said it generally supports maintaining a renewable fuels mandate.

Debates about ethanol could grow more spirited in the coming months as farmers continue to grapple with falling incomes and rural areas press for economic policies that build on their support for President Trump in last fall’s election. Johnson said farm lending is down, while high poverty, lower college attendance and other measures of economic health seem stacked against farm country.

“There’s a need to look for policy solutions,” he said.