Guest Columnist

Rural economy is in the crosshairs

E-15 fuel available for purchase at Linn Cooperative Oil in Marion on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
E-15 fuel available for purchase at Linn Cooperative Oil in Marion on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

When Andrew Wheeler’s nomination to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) comes to a vote in a few days, Midwest senators will have a tough decision to make.

On one hand, as acting administrator, Wheeler has vowed to make good on President Donald Trump’s pledge to lift restrictions on crop-based biofuels like ethanol. For too long, drivers have been barred from purchasing 15 percent ethanol blends (E15) in the summer because outdated rules block cleaner fuel options.

On the other hand, it was revealed last week that the agency is sitting on no fewer than 37 requests for oil industry waivers under the Renewable Fuel Standard. Together, these waivers represent billions of bushels of corn that will either enter the energy market as high-value ethanol or add to the surplus of undervalued commodities weighing down America’s farm economy.

By law, the agency may consider waivers for “small” refineries facing “disproportionate” economic hardship. But that’s not what happened in 2016 and 2017. Some of the largest and most profitable oil companies in the world — Exxon, Marathon, Andeavor, and Chevron — all won permission to replace biofuel with more petroleum. The last EPA administrator did not deny a single handout request. It destroyed demand for 2.25 billion gallons of American-made ethanol.

President Donald Trump fired that EPA chief and nominated Wheeler to take over, but the damage has yet to be repaired. Dozens of ethanol plants have cut production or closed their doors, and with foreign nations throwing up trade barriers, many farm communities have been left without a competitive market for their crops. Bankruptcies are on the rise, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) economists are worried about a steep drop in the value of farm land itself.

Now there are 37 more waivers under review, each representing millions of gallons of U.S. ethanol. The exact same number of requests were filed in 2017, but this time, it’s up to Wheeler to make the call. So far, it doesn’t look great. The agency still hasn’t formally denied a single handout. Wheeler appears to be keeping the waivers warm until after lawmakers cast their votes on his confirmation.

Hopefully, Midwest senators will be successful in securing concrete assurances that the EPA is ready to change course, because the oil industry’s champions in Congress are not holding back.

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Just a few days ago, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his allies issued a letter threatening the president’s nominee unless he agrees to roll back renewable fuels, protect oil industry handouts, and sidestep a court order requiring the EPA to repair the damage from illegal waivers granted in 2016.

Of course, Midwest senators know how to play hardball too. But when they press a nominee, it has been to safeguard the administration’s agenda for rural growth. In contrast, the oil companies want the EPA to actively undermine Trump’s agenda. That’s not an acceptable outcome and leaders in Congress should make it crystal clear that they expect the EPA to follow the letter and spirit of the law.

U.S. biofuels play a vital role in protecting our security. They supply 10 percent of our motor fuel, shielding drivers from market manipulation by Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other foreign powers. Ethanol also costs about $1.34 per gallon, so every gallon added to the fuel supply brings down gasoline prices. Moreover, it offers an eco-friendly octane boost, cutting down on smog and reducing carbon emissions by an average of 43 percent, according to federal data.

America’s progress under the Renewable Fuel Standard has been nothing short of incredible. We’ve created hundreds of thousands of jobs and established the U.S. as the world’s top producer and exporter of ethanol. Let’s hope Midwest champions in the Senate can keep it that way.

• Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator from Missouri and is co-chair of Americans for Energy Security and Innovation.

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