When the Environmental Protection Agency proposed lowering the country’s ethanol-use mandates for this year and next, it set up a public hearing to let people tell it what they thought.
On Thursday more than 280 people showed up to testify at the Jack Reardon Convention Center in Kansas City, Kan., and most had the same message: “Don’t mess with RFS!”
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The Renewable Fuel Standard — RFS for short — calls for the use of increasing amounts of ethanol each year, and scores of speakers from corn growers and ethanol producers to governors and rural economic development officials told the EPA not to reduce the targets Congress set in a 2007 law.
In testimony and at a midday rally in Huron Park nearby, Govs. Terry Branstad of Iowa, the top ethanol and corn-producing state, and Jay Nixon of Missouri both made the standard points for ethanol: It helped farmers by creating another market for corn, it created jobs at ethanol plants and in related industries, it reduced U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and it reduced pollution by helping gasoline burn more cleanly.
Nixon said: “A recent report at the University of Missouri found that Missouri’s ethanol industry alone accounted for $1.1 billion of economic output for our state, including about 1,500 jobs. But agriculture isn’t just an important industry. It’s an important part of our way of life. When you hurt agriculture, you hurt families.”
The amounts the EPA now calls for using — 16.3 billion gallons of ethanol this year and 17.4 billion in 2016 — would still be increases from the past, but also 4 billion gallons less this year than Congress legislated and nearly 5 billion less next year. The U.S. used 15.9 billion gallons in 2014, almost all of it blended into E10 gasoline — 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.
Branstad noted that corn prices had fallen from $6 a bushel to around $3.45 now in Iowa, making it a particularly tough time to also cut the Renewable Fuel Standard.
The National Corn Growers Association, which has 43,000 members concentrated in the Midwest, was particularly well represented on Thursday. The association president, Chip Bowling, came in from Maryland to testify.
“An important part of our work is protecting existing markets, and that’s why we’re here today,” he said. “We simply cannot afford and will not tolerate efforts to cut the demand for corn, and that’s exactly what your proposal will do. We cannot let this stand. We’ve done our part, our allies in the ethanol industry have done their part, and it’s time for the EPA to side with those of us supporting a domestic renewable fuel that’s better for the environment. It’s what your mission seeks to do.”
The Renewable Fuels Association, representing ethanol plant operators, also was out in force. At the midday Rally for Rural America, which drew more than 200 people, the association’s senior vice president, Jeff Cooper, thanked the EPA for having its hearing in the Heartland, rather than in Washington. And he said the Renewable Fuel Standard had worked well, increasing farm incomes, reducing oil imports and boosting renewable fuel production 500 percent.
“Why would we turn our back on that success?” he asked.
That success is important to secure a future for young farmers, too, said another speaker at the rally, Logan Korff of Norborne, Mo. His father, Rob Korff, raises soybeans and corn, and Logan, a senior next year at Norborne High School, is president of his FFA chapter.
Logan Korff said having two ethanol plants nearby was a great benefit to his family’s farm, in addition to “providing jobs and much needed economic development.”
Chris Grundler, who oversaw the hearings as the director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said during a break in the hearings that the EPA’s goals were to return certainty to the industry and to “follow Congress’ intent to grow the volumes of renewable fuels used, year over year.” But, he said, “we can’t ignore basic facts.”
The 2007 law provides for the EPA to revise its targets, which the EPA says is necessary because there has been less overall gasoline use than predicted, and next-generation biofuels, made from agricultural waste such as wood chips and corncobs, have not taken off as quickly as Congress hoped.
Not everyone testifying was critical of the EPA’s action. Bob Greco, a director at the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, said his group favored letting market forces, rather than government targets, have more say in what energy people used.
“Most cars can only operate on a 10 percent ethanol blend maximum,” he said outside the hearing rooms. “As long as the EPA mandates stay below 10 percent, then that’s an acceptable level. Our concern is that by 2016 the mandates would push the ethanol level above 10 percent. At that point we’re faced with very limited choices in what to do with a supply of more ethanol than the consumer wants.”
The EPA now specifies total ethanol targets, rather than gasoline percentages. But there has been consideration of pushing for so-called E15 — gasoline with 15 percent ethanol instead of 10 percent. Advocates dispute that that would cause much disruption, though, as 2001 model cars and newer are supposed to be able to use E15.
Some not tied to big oil also challenged the mandate Thursday.
Melissa Vatterott, with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said that ethanol actually increases “climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions” and on balance was not good for the environment.
“Growing corn is profitable. Preserving a wetland or sustainably growing spinach is not,” she said in prepared testimony. “The government-guaranteed market for corn ethanol may be profitable for industrialized agriculture, but the conversion of Midwest land into heavily subsidized corn fields also yields poor air, soil and water quality.”
All the witnesses will know by the end of November whether their evidence and opinions changed the EPA’s proposal. The agency will review all the comments and issue its final standards by the end of November.
Grundler said the EPA “welcomes an honest debate over these numbers,” and made it clear that all the comments would be heard and considered.
“This is one of the most imporant parts of my job, hearing directly from citizens,” he said. “It’s very humbling and the highest responsibility.”