Trump, Biofuels, 2020 and the prospect of a Farmer Flip

September 4, 2019 |

By Mike Carr

Special to The Digest

Starting with Iowa voters in the earliest part of his campaign, one of Donald Trump’s most explicit promises has been to farm country voters that he would protect and expand the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Instead, President Trump has repeatedly buckled under pressure from fossil fuel interests and their Wall Street backers, giving an unprecedented number of “small refinery waivers” to oil refiners that have reported record profits year over year, significantly undermining biofuel production by destroying nearly 4 billion gallons of ethanol demand to date. Coupled with his thoughtless trade war with China that has sent crop prices plummeting, farmers across the country continue to experience extreme economic hardship, but have listened to the President’s rhetoric that he had a plan. Until last week, the renewable fuels industry had remained patient and loyal, begging the Administration for the reallocation of the lost demand caused by the President’s missteps.

After a final devastating blow to farm country earlier this month, leaders within the industry, members of Congress, and farmers across the country have reached the breaking point and have simply run out of time to wait for Trump’s actions to match his words. As it has been made clear by recent reporting, Trump was not “out of the loop” as some had wanted to believe, instead his attack on rural America has been a deliberate series of actions, favoring his biggest donors over his biggest political supporters – support he can no longer count on in 2020.

Although the assault on the renewable fuels industry has been devastating the rural economy for a continuous three years, it has finally become an issue so significant that rural voters are forced to rethink their support for the President come 2020. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and Iowa Agricultural Secretary Mike Naig expressed extreme disappointment in Donald Trump’s decision to once again favor fossil fuels at the expense of farmers. Farm country leaders within his own party, such as Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have sharply called out his actions as well, suggesting Trump sold out his voters. Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union, said in an interview last week that “It’s going to take much different behavior from future presidents in order to repair this damage,” and that Trump has “offended the leaders of pretty much every ally we have on Earth.” Iowa state Senator Annette Sweeney (R-25) said just this morning, “This is no longer about politics. It’s about protecting our communities, our economic security, and a rural way of life.” In the last week, farmers have visibly taken a fresh look at 2020 Democratic contenders, appreciating the attention the pool of candidates has paid to the issue, recognizing the devastation it has brought to the entirety of the Midwest.

At the start of summer, Trump lifted restrictions on the higher ethanol blend commonly referred to as E15, allowing year-round sale of the fuel. This long-overdue move was meant to pacify the industry in the wake of new small refinery waivers being issued and the expected proposal of Renewable Volume Obligations allowing no growth in biofuel production. While they celebrated E15 as a small victory, it has done nothing to halt the slide in the industry caused by Trump’s other policies. To date, 15 ethanol production facilities have been forced to either idle production or close altogether, the most notable being a plant operated in Indiana by Poet.

Now, as he sees his electoral prospects unraveling among even his most fervent past supporters, the President looks to recover with his tried and true approach of loudly overpromising relief and subsequently, quietly under-delivering. Whatever the package of “relief” he announces in the coming days, the damage from his ill-considered trade war and his continuing assault on the RFS have created a hole in rural American economies that is nearly impossible to fill.

The fact remains that anything short of full reallocation of the 4 billion gallons of biofuel demand destroyed, in addition to significant growth for the blending of renewable fuels into the nation’s fuel supply through the Renewable Fuel Standard, and stepped up investment in second generation renewable fuels will continue to leave farm county in economic distress.

Trump — despite his hollow promises to “take care of our farmers” — is attempting to drive the final nail in the coffin of the RFS and, with it, take away one of the last lifelines rural America has to a return to prosperity. His latest actions to further degrade the RFS through radically exploiting the “small refinery exemption waiver” process speak much louder than his empty words. He has made clear again and again that he has no intention of supporting farmers, particularly when it comes to creating low-carbon biofuels that would compete with his fossil fuel funders.

Beyond kicking farmers when they can least afford it, this latest broadside further undermines the path forward for rural America that we had previously been on while attempting to box us into the fossil fuel dead-end advocated by the oil industry. They would accomplish one of their cherished goals: to remove renewable fuels from our collective toolbox — one of the key resources we have to fight climate change.

It has been heartening to see so many of the Democratic contenders for 2020 recognize the critical role agriculture will play in any serious attempt to reverse our dangerous course toward catastrophic climate change. As long-standing stewards of the land, farmers know how to think about long-term consequences and are our greatest source of innovation when it comes to conserving our precious resources. It is imperative to harness their ingenuity and dedication by creating ways for them to realize value from carbon-efficient farming and from producing clean alternatives to fossil fuels.

It’s not only smart policy to bring them into the fold, as it was in 2006, it’s smart politics — and with the Trump administration so badly letting the mask drop on their anti-rural agenda, the opening might be greater than its ever been. It’s never been more clear that the interests of farm country do not align with the fossil fuel-powered big donor agenda of the White House, so what better time for Democrats to show they get how important rural America is to a clean energy transition?

From farm-compatible wind and  solar electricity, to carbon-sequestering farming practices, to biofuels that can break the oil-industry’s monopoly control over how we move over land, sea, and air, the practical and political path to a clean energy economy goes through rural America. With the Trump administration having its head in the sand on this, like so many other issues, it’s a golden opportunity for Democrats to step up and move us all forward. The early signs are good — let’s hope the momentum continues.

Mike Carr is executive director of New Energy America. He previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and as senior counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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Category: Thought Leadership

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