President Trump recently pulled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) back from an obvious blunder, and the reactions have been fascinating. The agency had been considering an oil industry request to roll back competition from U.S. biofuels, but the White House sided with rural communities, where renewable fuels are produced from farm-crops or agricultural waste.
Oil industry elites in Washington were shocked and dismayed. The head of the petroleum lobby called it “astonishing” while the nation’s largest refining company accused opponents of “bullying” the massive oil industry. Another refiner suggested that it might sue President Trump for enforcing the law.
The cause of their manufactured angst is America’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a 12-year-old policy that promotes clean, homegrown biofuels, saves consumers money at the pump, and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs. The law serves as a pillar of the rural economy, ensuring that U.S. biofuels can reach consumers at the gasoline pump, breaking a once-solid monopoly on motor fuels. It also provides a critical cushion against price manipulation by foreign regimes, helping the average U.S. household save about $142 in gasoline expenses, according to the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.
That’s why rural leaders like Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley cheered the administration’s position, noting that the EPA “should be commended for following through on President Trump’s commitment to biofuels and the RFS.”
The only real shocker here was that oil companies were surprised by the president’s willingness to stand by his supporters in the American heartland.
Proclaiming that “family farmers are the backbone of America,” President Trump vowed time-and-again to “protect the corn-based ethanol and biofuels that power our country.” He was right to make that commitment. His vision has been a source of hope among agricultural communities where farm income plummeted in recent years, weighed down by a massive surplus of grain and the efforts of foreign nations to shut out U.S. farm exports.
From ruby-red Nebraska to moderate Michigan, rural voters cast decisive votes for a candidate who pledged to turn America’s vast agricultural resources into a tool to drive growth, enhance energy security, and lower the cost of fuel.
These are the voters who would be hurt by a plan first glimpsed in July, when the EPA proposed slashing total biofuel production, with deep cuts to cellulosic ethanol made from corn fiber, cobs, stalks, and other agricultural leftovers. A second EPA notice in September would have rolled back biodiesel and a range of advanced biofuels. Then news broke that a few refiners had convinced the EPA to consider attaching ethanol credits to exported fuel. These credits could then be used by oil refiners to dodge the RFS.
None of these moves make sense, except to a few refinery owners. Cellulosic ethanol, for example, is poised to drive the next great wave of rural manufacturing. And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that corn-based ethanol cuts emissions by 43 percent, research shows that the full lifecycle of some cellulosic biofuels actually pulls carbon from the atmosphere.
That potential is now being realized, right in the heartland. Revolutionary plants in Iowa are churning out commercial volumes, some for the first time. And conventional ethanol producers are pioneering technology that can be attached to existing facilities, allowing local farmers to turn both grain and waste into fuel.
The RFS makes these innovations possible, ensuring that billions of dollars of investment capital aren’t diverted to Brazil and China. It has promoted America’s rise as the world leader in biofuel production and allows homegrown fuels to displace more than 500 million barrels of oil each year.
That progress will continue, according to a letter EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recently sent – with President Trump’s full support – to lawmakers from across the Midwest. But the White House should be wary, as should lawmakers who support the president’s commitment to renewable fuels.
Well-positioned lobbyists are working hard to manipulate the EPA. They want to ensure that homegrown biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, remain stuck at 2017 levels. And they don’t care a whit about keeping President Trump’s promises to rural voters. But for the heartland, zero growth is unacceptable.
Former Missouri Senator Jim Talent currently serves as Co-Chair of Americans for Energy Security and Innovation.