Corn growers rally over EPA’s rule to cut ethanol production

corn field 0Yesterday, roughly 300 corn growers from across the country rallied in Washington D.C. to protest the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to cut corn-based ethanol production. Ken Hartman, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, said they are taking their frustrations straight to Capital Hill and letting lawmakers know just how important corn-based ethanol is to farmers. “Our potential corn crop isn’t looking as good as it was a few months ago,” Hartman admits. “But we are still going to have corn to move and it is unfair of the EPA to lower what was legislated.”

As reported here in June, this is all part of the ongoing war between the EPA and corn growers from across the country, many of whom rely on ethanol sales for continued growth even as demand outpaces supply. The EPA is proposing that the amount of ethanol being produced under the Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) program be drastically cut, by about 4 billion gallons this year, and nearly 5 billion gallons next year.

Those attending the rally are asking for an increase in “RFS volumes for corn-based ethanol, which faces cuts by the EPA.” According to Chris Gundler, the director of the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality, unless the requirements are reduced, “there’s no way the [Renewable Fuel] standards can be met in the next few years. There would be widespread noncompliance, and the EPA is not in the habit of putting out standards we don’t think are achievable.”

The new RFS proposals also run counter to what Congress mandated in 2007, which called for increasing amounts of ethanol produced year after year, so corn growers are bypassing the EPA altogether and taking their case directly to Congress. Corn growers from different states attended the rally in part to decry the EPA’s apparent lack of interest in finding alternative solutions and also its unwillingness to help agriculture meet the volumes required by law.

Steve Kelly, general manager of the One Earth Energy ethanol plant in Gibson City, Illinois, said the EPA’s new proposal would also affect Central Illinois farmers. “If you cut corn demand by 1.5 billion bushels in Central Illinois, then you will lose a good portion of your demand,” he said. “That is about 11 percent of the corn crop that doesn’t need to be grown and the less of a need there is for a good, renewable source of fuel.”

But the EPA has countered that demand can’t keep up with supply. With a lack of infrastructure to grow enough corn and the agriculture industry unable to produce what has already been mandated, they can’t grow it “as fast or as large as Congress anticipated” in 2007. In 2014, the “U.S. used 15.9 billion gallons [of ethanol] in 2014, some 1.7 billion gallons less than legislated.”

Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr. notes that “For an administration that likes to talk a big game about the need to reduce greenhouse gases, EPA continues to act timidly in the face of an oil industry that would prefer not to blend a single drop of biofuels.”

But the president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, Chet Thompson, has said those types of allegations are laughable. Thompson explained that the “EPA is doing what it is doing because it’s undeniable there’s a lack of demand and infrastructure out there to meet the statutory requirement.”

The president of the The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Jerry Mohr, pointed out that farmers have the capabilities for increased ethanol production. “Iowa farmers have rallied to the challenge and been asked to produce corn, and we have. We just need a way to get rid of it. And ethanol has been a great one. And it’s great for our country, and it cleans the air.”

Critics argue that ever since ethanol (considered a biofuel) was required in gasoline, growing corn has displaced other food crops, causing food costs worldwide to soar (most human food is made with corn, including animal feed), and that it actually uses more energy to make than it produces. It also reduces fuel efficiency (one-third less mileage per gallon than gasoline), corrodes engines and degrades “plastic, rubber, or even metal in your fuel system,” and requires “vast amounts of land, water, fertilizers, pesticides, tractor and truck fuel, and natural gas for distillation.”

There is also something else that this new proposal will do: If the EPA successfully sets the biofuel levels (which includes corn-based ethanol) at much lower levels for the next 2-3 years, as it is doing in its proposed rule, under the Clean Air Act it will give the agency the power to reduce production forever. While some say that reducing and even eliminating the use of biofuels will be far more beneficial to the environment (and your vehicle) instead of developing it further, others see this new proposal as another EPA power grab.

Brent Erickson, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, told the Washington Examiner that, “The agency disingenuously claims that its proposal is ‘forward-leaning’ and that the volumes are ‘higher than what the market would produce and use in the absence of such market-driving standards. But the fact is, EPA proposed volumes for 2015 and 2016 that are transparently calculated to give the agency authority to rewrite the statutory volumes for the future.

Recognizing the firestorm this new proposal has created, EPA’s Administrator Gina McCarthy will be speaking at the National Corn Growers’ Corn Congress today at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. According to an EPA news release, “The Administrator will be speaking about various agency actions to protect our environment and public health while working collaboratively with the agriculture community.” The EPA will have a final ruling by November 30.