Trump’s ethanol waivers have betrayed the trust of farmers like me

Source: By Darrel McAlexander, Des Moines Register • Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2019

When President Trump came to Iowa in June for an event at one of the state’s 42 ethanol plants, I was one of the few local farmers who was lucky enough to speak with him personally. I accompanied the president as he pushed the button to dump corn from my trailer into the receiving pit at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy. I’ve been selling corn to the plant for years, and I have borne witness to the facility’s many positive impacts on the local economy.

After thanking Trump for following through on his commitment to allow year-round sales of 15 percent ethanol blends, I specifically warned him that his Environmental Protection Agency was doing damage to the farm economy by issuing secret waivers to oil refiners. These exemptions — some of which were reportedly given to huge companies like Chevron and Exxon — allow refiners to ignore their legal obligation to blend renewable fuels like the ethanol made at SIRE and the biodiesel made at Iowa’s 11 biodiesel plants. The president shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll look into it.”

A bit later, Trump spoke to 1,000 farmers and ethanol supports who had gathered at the plant. He said he “…pledged to support our ethanol industry and to fight for the American farmer like no president has ever fought before.”

That afternoon in Council Bluffs, we were sure that if the president truly looked into the sordid details around EPA’s massive increase in small refinery exemptions, he would put an immediate stop to them.  So, I was shocked when the EPA announced 31 more refinery exemptions in August, less than two months after my conversation with the president.

What made this round of refinery exemptions even worse was the news that Trump himself had greenlighted them. I feel betrayed, and I know other Iowa farmers do too. The number of refineries bailed out from their biofuel requirements has surged four-fold under Trump, and as a result, we’re seeing weakened demand for both ethanol and corn.

The facts are clear. When refiners blend less ethanol into the fuel supply because of these waivers, we are running down both the price of ethanol and the price of corn. Profitability has evaporated for many ethanol plants and margins have turned negative. Corn prices are falling. Today we’re seeing ethanol plants close or go idle, including some right here in western Iowa. I and thousands of other farmers are worried that if this continues, we won’t be able to unload our corn at ethanol plants much longer, as Trump himself did from my trailer that June day, because they’ll all be boarded up. And now, the same rural Americans — some farmers, but not all — who proudly voted for Trump in 2016 are thinking hard about other options in 2020.

There is still a chance to make things right and honor the commitment Trump made to fight for American farmers. The time to fight is now. As the EPA finalizes its renewable fuel volume obligations for 2020, it can prospectively restore the required blending volumes that were lost due to refinery exemptions.  Doing so would help rejuvenate hope in our ethanol and biodiesel plants, our farms, and small towns across the Corn Belt — from Iowa and Wisconsin to Michigan and Ohio.

Darrel McAlexander, a corn grower in Sidney, Iowa, has served as chairman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and on the board of directors of the U.S. Grains Council.