Mired in Misère: Re-Launching Political Capital and Public Trust for Biofuels; Seven Strategies to Reinstate Our Industry’s Power in Washington, D.C. through Mainstreet, USA

June 7, 2018 |

By Jenna Bloxom, Colorado State University

Special to The Digest

In games of cards and war, the strategy of misère is brandished by players who, disadvantaged by unfavorable odds, seek victory by patiently dodging confrontation and encouraging opponents to risk defeat in their own bids for glory.  Such maneuvers of evasion, endurance, and passivity can be effective tactics for winning Hearts—except those which embody the powerful yet fickle affections of the public.

For the last decade, the biofuels industry has engaged in misère as our default approach to political capital, and by neglecting to proactively cultivate public trust and widespread support, we are stacking the deck against preserving our meaningful role in the future of U.S. clean energy.  Now is the critical juncture for a unified bioeconomy to re-assert biofuels as a political powerhouse and compelling policy agenda that defies partisan, geographical, and generational divisions.

Rather than simply wait with bated breath and tied hands for the White House to broker permanent “tweaks” to the implementation of the Renewable Fuel Standard, this industry must take the initiative to drastically alter the public’s understanding and attitudes about biofuels in order to regain the political capital necessary for competing in tomorrow’s energy race.  Our potential to innovate lasting, effective solutions to fossil fuel dependency hinges upon social sentiment and political influence as much as it does ingenuity.  Public opinion is the ultimate linchpin that differentiates viable industries, worthy of attention and investment from public and private sectors alike, from those “obsolete” technologies perceived to survive only because of special interest lobbying and pork barrel policies.  If we cannot foster explicit and lasting support from the U.S. populace regarding the real and substantial benefits of bio-based fuels, we will fail to sustain the political capital imperative for the fiscal incentives, advantageous policies, and talented researchers and entrepreneurs vital to advancing our industry.

Political Capital

Political capital is the functional manifestation of citizen support.  It is the capacity of interest groups and industries to transform an overarching public mandate into focused political agendas with the power to successfully influence policy and regulatory outcomes. Political capital arises when an energized base of constituents establishes an interdependent circuit of momentum in which they use their collective voices to provide an industry, NGO, or social cause with access to executive, legislative, and judicial decision-makers who, in turn, look to those citizens to guide their responses. The avenues to attain societal and governmental prominence are certainly multitudinous and often onerous, but whether through time-tested democratic means, ascending social campaigns, or swift reactions to current events, the potency of political capital is unrivaled. Its rarity and, thus, value can be attributed to the immense difficulty of securing the enduring trust of a motivated and coordinated swath of the public; in today’s chaotic socio-political atmosphere, such loyalty is at a premium as people are forced to remain skeptical of the barrage of conflicting “solutions” peddled by entities with a bone to pick or a dollar to make.

Successfully realizing this currency of influence is not uniform across sectors, time frames, or conditions, so the dynamic nature of political capital leads to its frequent—and erroneous—comparison to the concept of public image, hence, its recurring dismissal as a marketing issue that can be indefinitely postponed.  Public image, however, is based on generalized attitudes and “gut feelings” which endear or rebuff a product, industry, or social movement to an audience without requiring any depth of knowledge or meaningful devotion.

Not confined to mere first impressions and superficial facades, the vast power of political capital originates from the public’s unified trust in an organization or network’s ability to go beyond satisfying a functional need in society to instead pave the way towards a better future. Time and time again, history shows that industries or social causes which depict themselves as unique and integral forces in creating opportunities for tomorrow’s growth, well-being, and prosperity are the ones most capable of authoritatively influencing policy changes.

For established coalitions like Big Oil and Big Pharma, it is certainly not public reverence that ensures their legislative and market prestige, but rather, it is the perceived indispensability of their goods for long-term societal advancement that guarantees their political clout.  Industries and groups which challenge entrenched commodities and narratives must likewise inspire the allure of progress while simultaneously confirming their viability as a real competitor to that which is customary.  The biofuels industry has forgotten that we cannot exist, much less excel, in the political, economic, and social arenas without the nation’s certainty in the demonstrated superiority of our contributions to the economies and ecosystems of today as well as tomorrow.

Past Success, Present Warning Signs

Thankfully, not every supply chain must feature avant-garde billionaires blasting sport cars into space to insinuate a brighter future, but restoring faith in the virtues of biofuels in today’s political climate will be a distinctively uphill battle.  In the past, our industry effectively wielded immense political capital, overcoming extensive objections to pass both the Energy Security Act of 2005 as well as the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, yet the last decade has marked a prolonged lapse in persuasive societal engagement.  What changed?  Well, we have been underplaying the strengths of bio-based fuels to the public for various reasons: a deliberate prioritization of technological and engineering breakthroughs over political aspirations; an overconfidence in the permanency of growth opportunities inked in the RFS; a general malaise regarding legislative and bureaucratic ineptitude to promote stable, conducive market conditions; the expectation of our over-worked, under-funded interest groups and lobbyists to produce miracles; an incapacity to compete with the anti-biofuels crusade promulgated by the API and their allies; and a general lack of awareness of just how badly the public perceives biofuels.

Of course, it is pragmatic to relegate scarce resources of time, money, and manpower into those areas with the highest potential return on investment—and the political realm can rarely boast of efficiency—but our sin of omission with regards to public outreach now evokes an existential threat to our industry. Citizens, the very voters selecting our legislators as well as the consumers of our products, have been inundated with orchestrated attacks on biofuels for so many years that they are more aware of orangutan carnage on the other side of the world than cutting-edge bioeconomy discoveries occurring in their own state.  Biofuels have been painted as a scapegoat for global food price volatility by the World Bank, IMF, and FAO (despite utilizing less than 2 percent of the world’s arable land for biomass), a vampire of engine performance and infrastructure durability, and a boogeyman for the environment with respect to deforestation, land-use change, and hypoxia.

Scientists, academics, and activists with their own agendas jumped on the bandwagon of ghost stories disparaging biofuels, but even our supposed allies in the push for clean energy have abandoned us.  Perhaps there is no better illustration of our precarious lack of social appeal and political capital than the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Standing Rock was, among many things, a prime and missed opportunity for the biofuels industry to send a charismatic voice to the media frontlines to remind an attentive nation that ethanol, alone, prevented more than half a billion barrels of crude oil from flowing through American pipelines, sustained 340,000 domestic jobs, and contributed over $40 billion to the GDP that year.

But rather than directing the dialogue to confirm the vital benefits of U.S. biofuels, we stood silently in the shadows while activist after activist answered the inevitable question, “how do we prevent more pipelines like this one?” with the same answer: “more wind and solar energy.”  It was a convenient, digestible sound-byte, however trite, and one that went unchallenged by those of us who knew better.  But while not everyone understands the divergent characteristics, uses, and conveyance methods of electricity versus petroleum, the myriad of interest groups at Standing Rock did grasp that biofuels are now so adversely controversial that it is more credible to offer vague platitudes to solving an overt problem than to acknowledge the world’s largest renewable fuel industry, one that has replaced oil with green alternatives for decades.

More worrisome than the loss of external recognition, though, is our industry’s curious aversion to advancing our own hard-won accomplishments.  It has been ten years since biofuels graced the cover of a mainstream magazine—and even then, the April 7th, 2008 edition of Time Magazine featured “The Clean Energy Myth”, arguing that corn ethanol was “driving up food prices and making global warming worse.” Eternal optimists would posit that there is no such thing as bad publicity; at least every person who passed a newsstand, airport kiosk, or bookstore display understood that biofuels, while contentious, were important enough to warrant the front page. Nevertheless, our industry’s disappearance from the headlines remains a mystery.  Have we neglected to make significant technical breakthroughs and scientific discoveries worthy of discussion?  Have we failed to propel valuable societal, environmental, and economic developments which improved millions of lives?  Do we represent what our detractors claim, nothing more than an ill-conceived government subsidy experiment that is riding out its luck? Absolutely not.

This industry’s R&D accomplishments and commercial products are a credit to the perseverance, brilliance, and passion of its people, and our victories have not only shaped the future of sustainable fuels and chemicals, but we have created new research and technological directions across diverse global market sectors. The networks comprising the bioeconomy are stronger, more interactive, and more collaborative than ever, but without a concerted effort to expose our achievements to the general public, we become complicit in our own unpopularity.  Goods works may speak for themselves, but an audience is required if one wants to be heard.  If we are not willing to herald the contributions of biofuels, we can hardly expect anyone else to believe in them.

Strategies for Change

Remaining mired in misère is not a pathway to improving our political authority, financial growth, or environmental legacy. The biofuels industry relies on a democratically-elected government and its consequential programs, so it is not far-fetched to say that we need to secure the support of the people it represents.  It is time to stop striving to solely maintain the status quo in D.C. with ambivalence punctuated by crisis management and, instead, enact a coordinated and cohesive plan to gain long-term leverage in the socio-political arena.  In short, this industry must re-capture the public’s conviction in our trail-blazing innovations by aggressively educating people with reliable, comprehensive facts as well as creating a dedicated outlet in which citizens can integrate and express their advocacy for biofuels though voting, dialogue, product consumption, and activism.  As a starting platform for bolstering our political capital and showcasing the potential of biofuels in the energy future of the U.S., there are seven harmonized strategies ranging from information dissemination to political engagement to coalition-building that will prove invaluable to our long-term policy influence.

I. Educate and Disseminate Information To New Audiences

Educating the public with respect to the traits and benefits of biofuels is a critical step in fighting against misinformation and promoting our industry as a real and ready solution to the country’s imminent energy challenges.  If the best defense is a good offense, we must make notable progress in drowning out fossil fuel propaganda by popularizing the truth about biofuels in ways that are equally accessible and thought-provoking.  Exposure is key.  Our diligent interest groups already amass a wealth of information enumerating the advantages of ethanol and biodiesel, but we need to bombard voters with this array of impressive statistics rather than expect them to prowl for minutia in their spare time.

Stretching far beyond industrial conferences and niche websites, the biofuels industry must spread information across various news and advertising outlets, academic and research forums, and social and cultural interest events (public platforms, community gatherings, state fairs outside of the corn belt, etc.) in order to re-emerge as a household institution—with an exotic reputation. As of 2018, millennials will surpass baby boomers as the largest generation of eligible voters, and these younger contemporaries glamorize state-of-the-art technology to resolve tomorrow’s unavoidable environmental, consumptive, and economic challenges.

As an industry, we need this demographic to envision bio-based fuels as the innovation of the future rather than a stopgap from the past.  We cannot earn their support for our pioneering developments in sustainable fuels and chemicals if we do not explicitly disseminate our achievements in the public eye and drastically alter their knowledge of our products.  A new educational campaign for biofuels must be pervasive and persuasive enough to grab headlines as well as substantive enough to deserve the public’s support.

II. Establish a Distinctive Identity and Purpose

To resurrect our political capital during this pivotal era of environmental decision-making, the biofuels industry must establish a definitive identity through which our contributions and commitment to America’s future are unmistakable.  We need to differentiate the purpose, advantages, and growth opportunities of biofuels from those of solar and wind energy to avoid becoming lost in the hazy renewable energy rhetoric.  Certainly, there were once notable benefits to being lumped into a sweeping category of “alternatives”, particularly when federal and local governments were eagerly handing out incentives to ambiguously “green” endeavors, but this one-dimensional and oversimplified classification has now made biofuels seem synonymous with everything from weatherization techniques to LEED certifications to smart grids.

For many citizens, biofuels represent another gimmick to justify policy interventions into conventional markets, and regardless of whether they accept or deny anthropogenic causes of climate change, it is crucial that our industry illustrate to these voters that biofuels have their own singular, distinctive role that cannot be replicated by wind farms, solar panels, or Energy Star appliances.  In conjunction with dispelling false accusations regarding biofuel use and production, our industry should also work to demarcate ethanol, biodiesel, and synthetic hydrocarbons as wholly unique in both form and function to maximize our publicity and impact in various fuel markets.  It is never easy (nor cheap) to amend the public’s mindset, but if the role of biofuels remains indistinguishable, it becomes expendable.

III. Rebuild Moderate Legislative Support

Congressional representatives have made extraordinary strides to protect biofuels in the face of suggested regulatory “calibrations” to the RFS, pending agricultural tariffs, and debated bioenergy funding, but for every Grassley and Klobuchar, there is also an equally passionate Cruz and Biggs.  Yet beyond the expected, healthy debate on how to best integrate renewables into the domestic transportation system, there is now a growing legislative tribalism associated with biofuel policies and programs that is alienating moderates from both sides of the aisle.  Outside of stalwart agricultural districts, biofuels are perceived as too environmentally controversial to be embraced by many progressive legislators and too indicative of the Big Government “swamp” to be endorsed by scores of conservatives.

This expanding deficit of middle-of-the-road support is deeply troubling as there is one inconvertible truth in representative democracies: moderate votes pass bills. A majority of votes, not bipartisan support, guarantees the power to actually enact laws and hold federal agencies accountable for faithfully executing them, so as the biofuel industry prepares for imminent policy battles now and certainly in 2022, we need to drastically expand our outreach and build political capital with moderate congressional representatives. The biofuel industry must tailor motivating messages to otherwise ambivalent lawmakers to demonstrate the definitive fiscal and environmental capabilities of ethanol, biodiesel, and green synthetic hydrocarbons.

We deeply appreciate pro-biofuel legislators and the indispensable role they play in advocating for bio-based energy at the federal level, but as an industry, we should also realize that we hold the power to re-build moderate support and change the dynamics in Washington so that, in the future, perhaps more than 24 of 435 representatives will join the House Biofuels Caucus and more than 13 of 100 Senators will be willing to pen their names on a letter demanding due justice for RVOs.

IV. Transform from a Proxy to Principal Interest

The relentless legislative guardianship of ethanol and biodiesel by representatives from certain agricultural regions is a testament to fortitude, but this decades-old rapport has also sparked a dangerous undercurrent of presumption infiltrating the biofuels industry’s approach to long-term advocacy on The Hill. Biofuel and agricultural policy goals have been synonymous for so many years that we have become over-confident in the permanency of this alliance to the point of dependency, so now is the time to recognize and react to the reality that biofuels are nothing more than a proxy interest for our most reliable proponents.  In truth, lawmakers from the Corn Belt defend the Renewable Fuel Standard program because it embodies a financial, regulatory, and bureaucratic structure which empowers agricultural and rural areas; however, if the RFS were to collapse or if its benefits for corn and soy were to become tethered to another policy arrangement, the demise of biofuels would be lamented as simply collateral damage.

Certainly, the market volatility from such a drastic uncoupling would result in serious consequences for all involved parties, but once the dust finally settled, Big Ag would assuredly inherit a new governmental support system to ensure the prominence of U.S. crops in global markets and companies like Monsanto and Cargill would again receive their subsidies, all without a drop of biofuels needed.  Our industry cannot survive today’s hostile political climate while remaining a means to an end for the agricultural sector.

To attract the interest of legislators from all fifty states, we must revamp the reputation of biofuels as a profitable, self-sufficient enterprise with significant applications to those main issues concerning all voters—energy security, military strength, ecological resilience, and domestic job growth.

V. Strengthen Alliances with Familiar Enemies

The excessive number of EPA “hardship” waivers awarded to refiners this year further drove a wedge between conventional and renewable fuel providers, but now more than ever, it is important to remember that we share a pivotal interest with the petroleum industry: biofuels. Oil organizations have waged siege on bioenergy for decades, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deny climate change and discredit the benefits of alternatives, yet amidst the lobbying and the exploitation of regulatory loopholes and the irritatingly-friendly ties with administrators, corporations including Shell and BP are also proudly boasting of their advanced biofuels investments while ExxonMobil endlessly runs television ads promoting their algae research.

Make no mistake, this paradox is not some nefarious ploy of simple “greenwashing” by firms otherwise disliked by the general public; this is a sincere and effective tactic to generate political capital by convincing citizens that this industry is pro-actively working on their behalf to ensure abundant supplies of cleaner, cheaper energy that will provide this nation with unlimited growth, wealth, and stability.  The candor behind these claims is irrelevant (though, the intention is indisputably authentic given the potential profitability), but the political power secured by petroleum companies understood to be safeguarding the “American way of life” is immeasurable.

The biofuels industry has too long been paralyzed with uncertainty in how to respond to the contradictions behind those serene stock images of floating green orbs, but since Big Oil has already made us a pawn in their political aspirations, we should embrace our role and move forwards, never backwards, towards a more lucrative relationship than enmity. There are untold advantages possible from a diplomatic alliance with the petroleum industry—heightened awareness of biofuel achievements, enhanced R&D opportunities, increased legitimacy of advanced renewables integrating into existing infrastructure, elevated political sway with mitigated public attacks—and if we approach this opportunity for accord with strategic pragmatism, fossil fuel entities will either acknowledge the mutual gains of an entente or publicly reject our olive branch, thus undermining their main, massive campaign for winning public trust.

Of course, individual biofuel companies have struck partnerships with specific oil companies with mixed results, but to re-claim the political capital that is rightfully ours, the bio-based fuel industry as a whole must pursue a truce with the adversary who knows us best…or call them on their bluff while the world watches.

VI. Negotiate Long-term, Strategic Pathways and Goals

Political capital will be instrumental in overcoming the slings and arrows of an antagonistic executive branch, but to earn the trust of citizens and their chosen legislators, the biofuels industry must formulate and publicize a cohesive, definitive strategy delineating our long-term and inclusive goals.  Farm bill programs, tax credits, blending quotas, and year-round E15 are critical discussions with respect to the immediate welfare of our business, but even collectively, these factors can neither save this industry from societal condemnation nor provide it with the concrete objectives towards which to strive for permanent success.  As a united coalition, we need an overarching purpose and plan to guide our actions, now and far beyond 2022, and efforts to preserve the status quo or merely increase outputs only undermines the real strength and dynamism of this sector.  Simply put, ‘survival’ and ‘profitability’ are the preconditions for an industry, not actual strategies for growth and progress, so we cannot instill confidence in society with respect to our ability to shape the future if we have no tangible ambitions and benchmarks along the way.

Negotiating a truly encompassing agenda will prove challenging as there is a propensity to buttress the expectations and interests of corn ethanol at the expense of emerging, under-developed facets of bio-based fuel production, but since these promising and contemporary divisions within our ranks command the most attention and intrigue in the public eye, our long-term goals must equally represent both the first and the third generation of biofuels.

VII. Build Political Capital for Specialized Industrial Sectors

A coalition of visionaries, lobbyists, and interest groups from the corn and soy industries worked relentlessly for decades to establish a powerful presence in Washington, D.C. on behalf on biomass and biofuel producers across the country and, in effect, also paved the way for assorted feedstocks, products, and production methods to find success in the contemporary bioeconomy.  Today, leaders representing conventional biofuels continue to spearhead the vast majority of the public and regulatory affairs for our entire industry, but it is past time for emerging sectors to become political victors in their own right.  To inspire public support as well as fruitful policy provisions, these segments of the biofuels industry must stop riding the legislative coattails of corn ethanol and prove themselves as both independently viable and valuable to the energy future of this country.

Since political capital is more effectively wielded with a scalpel than a claymore, each specialized faction of bio-based fuels, from cellulosic ethanol to waste-derived SAF, requires meticulous messaging and a customized outreach strategy to successfully build real connections with citizens and lawmakers. Posh industrial meetings, symbolic memberships to sustainable roundtables, and inter-agency MOUs are small steps towards political engagement but ones that neither interact with the public at large nor build their confidence in our abilities to forever revolutionize renewables.  A focus on R&D and commercialization is always touted as the paramount concern of nascent biofuels divisions, but for groups claiming to embody vital, reliable contributions for the next surge of domestic energy supplies, it is no longer sufficient to simply hope that a sweeping biofuels reform will be advantageously inclusive. After all, a rising tide may lift all boats, but those which do not embark on their own journey will be anchored to the same spot when favorable conditions ebb once more.

Final Thoughts

Securing the public’s trust is a difficult and urgent goal for the biofuels industry, and while such an endeavor demands long-term investments, patience, and a combination of socially-minded strategies, we can no longer tiptoe around the bad reputation and suspicions that have been heaped upon us.  Naturally, these prescriptions for exerting change are much easier said than done—but they must be done, nonetheless, for our industry to possess self-sustaining power in markets and policies.  Political capital represents the first line of defense against misleading propaganda and the last hurdle to unlocking untold opportunities across the socio-economic, policy, and environmental spectra.  The task of engaging the public’s trust in our industry as a progressive pathway towards a new norm of green energy independence cannot be relegated to those overburdened yet indomitable biofuels interest groups already promoting us in the public sphere; true success in building political capital will require an industry-wide shift in priorities.  As a multifaceted yet united coalition of bio-based fuels, we can return to controlling our outreach and education platforms, demonstrating the superiority of our innovations, and garnering widespread support instead of perpetually dodging falsehoods and relying on help from a handful of elected legislators regularly branded by their own constituents as paid mercenaries for moneyed interests.  Over the last decade, the gambit of misère kept biofuels in the political game, but now that the stakes have been raised in Washington, we must accordingly shuffle the cards and start anew.

About the author:

Bloxom is a political scientist with fourteen years of combined professional and research experience specific to biofuel policies and technology, the politics of innovation, and natural resource management. With practical training in both the domestic and international arenas, Bloxom executed strategic public outreach in the private sector as well as for interest groups including ACORE in addition to a stint in academia teaching bioenergy policy graduate courses and publishing on renewables-based economic development in U.S. cities. As the first political scientist admitted to Colorado State University’s NSF-funded IGERT bioenergy program, Bloxom pursued an interdisciplinary Ph.D. by utilizing a scientific emphasis to study the viability of sustainable aviation fuel in conjunction with the intrinsic policy foundations of this emerging global production network.

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Category: Thought Leadership

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