Vilsack says he’s worried about future of ethanol mandate

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Tuesday, December 20, 2016

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a Register editorial board Dec. 19, 2016, he was concerned about how some of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees could change the Renewable Fuels Standard and that supporters should be vigilant. The Register

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday he’s concerned about the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard, the federal mandate that requires ethanol and biodiesel to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply.

President-elect Donald Trump nominated two RFS opponents to key agencies: Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is slated to lead the Energy Department and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is tapped for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“There have been a series of mixed signals about the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Vilsack said during a Des Moines Register editorial board meeting Monday. “It predated the election, and it’s not been cleared up with the appointments.”

Iowa’s former governor said the oil industry’s attack on the RFS has been comprehensive — through regulations, the courts and public opinion.

“There’s been an ongoing effort on the part of the oil industry to get rid of the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Vilsack said. “I think people who are supportive of the renewable fuel standard should be incredibly vigilant now.”

A diverse group of renewable fuel supporters sent Trump a letter last week, reminding the billionaire real estate developer about his commitment to the RFS during the campaign as “an important tool in the mission to achieve energy independence for the U.S.”

Last week, Gov. Terry Branstad said Trump personally reassured him that Pruitt “is going to be for ethanol.”

“I think that was basically a condition he laid out” when Trump appointed Pruitt, said Branstad, Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to China.

Like the group, Vilsack described biofuels development as key to revitalizing rural America.

“It’s incredibly important to the economy of rural America,” he said.

Iowa is the leading producer of both ethanol and biodiesel, and Iowa has three plants making cellulosic ethanol, the next generation of renewable fuel. Two plants are making the greener ethanol from crop residue — corn cobs, husks, stalks and leaves.

Vilsack said the agency has had little contact with Trump’s transition team since the election, which he said is concerning since the USDA employs around 95,000 people, has 3,000 offices, a $155 billion budget and worldwide impact.

The agency’s programs range from forest management and food safety to lunches for school kids, food assistance for needy families, and safety net programs for farmers.

“There’s been one person, one person coming to USDA, and he lasted about an hour,” Vilsack said. “I had already started my own briefing by now. I had massive three-ring binders, reading about the programs.”

“So to date, there has been no transition team. No groups of people up on that fifth floor looking at all this stuff, making sure they understand what they’re getting into,” Vilsack said.

It could delay some important initiatives, such as the GMO labeling law. He said the law is important because it’s an effort to provide “greater transparency for consumers, while at the same time not disparage GMOs,” which are plants that have been genetically modified to be more nutritious and resistant to drought or to chemicals. USDA has two years to establish the regulations.

“There’s a lot of internal work that goes into the rules process,” Vilsack said. “And there’s a timeline” to accomplish it.

The federal law pre-empted state labeling laws. “That may disappear, so then you’ve got chaos in the marketplace,” he said. “It’s really important that people understand what they’re getting into.

“This is complex stuff,” Vilsack said. “I assume someone will eventually show up at the place. There’s a lot of work to do,” including drafting a new farm bill.

A member of the Trump transition team did not answer a request to comment as of press time.

Vilsack said he plans to spend time with grandchildren in Iowa and Colorado after leaving USDA. He reiterated his wish to continue advocating for farmers, ranchers and agriculture. He also said he’d like to continue working with young people.

Vilsack said his next endeavor could be tied to a university. “I’ve got a plan. I just can’t talk about it.”