Are Presidential Candidates Listening to the Biofuels Industry?

By Ben Nuelle

Biofuel industry advocates say they’re pleased with how the Democratic presidential candidates are talking about ethanol and biodiesel in Iowa, although most of the campaigns haven’t provided specifics about how they would increase demand.

Many of the candidates, in fact, are promising policies that could decrease biofuel demand by pushing motorists toward electric vehicles.

And none of the candidates accepted an invitation to appear at an Iowa biofuels summit Jan. 16. President Donald Trump headlined the same event four years earlier.

But one of them, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is already well-versed on biofuel policy, and the others have shown a willingness to learn about the issue while campaigning in Iowa ahead of the Feb. 3 caucuses.

“They come here, they spend time, they see the farmers, they see the plants, they’re seeing the impact and end up supporting renewable fuels because of how much sense it makes,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

To the industry’s frustration, biofuel critic Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won the Iowa GOP caucuses in 2016 over Trump, who ultimately won the Republican nomination and carried the state in the general election.

Klobuchar, who has been an outspoken proponent of the industry in Congress, says she would immediately review the Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of the Renewable Fuel Standard in her first 100 days in office.

“I think our big problem right now is the dozens and dozens and dozens, over 70 waivers this president has given to the oil companies, not just small refineries but Chevron and Exxon,” Klobuchar said, responding to an Agri-Pulse question at an Iowa event last weekend.

In her plan for rural America, Klobuchar called for ending the overuse of small refinery exemptions (SREs), investing in blender pump infrastructure, extending the biodiesel tax credits, and ensuring year-round sales of gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol.

“I believe we should be investing in the farmers and workers of the Midwest, instead of the oil cartels of the Mideast,” she said.

But Klobuchar, like the other Democratic candidates, is vague on how she would reduce the number of exemptions from annual biofuel mandates. In her climate plan, she says she also would invest in electric vehicle infrastructure and promote electric vehicle sales by investing in vehicle charging infrastructure and reviving the tax credit for electric vehicle purchases.

poll released Monday by Focus on Rural America, a group that is pushing the candidates to focus on biofuel policy, showed Biden leading the race but identified Klobuchar as the candidate that likely caucus-goers believe would be the “best for the needs and interests of rural Iowa.”

The latest RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Biden favored by 21% of likely caucus-goers, followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at 17.3%, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 16.7%. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 16.3% and Klobuchar at 8.3%.

Biden’s energy plan calls the development of the next generation of biofuels “a top priority.” He wants to reduce climate change by investing in research to develop cellulosic biofuels while also funding the installation of electric vehicle charging stations across the country to “accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles.”

The co-founder of Focus on Rural America, former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, said she knew Klobuchar had a good grasp on biofuels going into the race but that Buttigieg was also knowledgeable about the issue. Her group led tours of ethanol plants for 14 candidates.

“He pointed out to us very quickly on his tour he could see an ethanol plant from his office in South Bend,” Judge told Agri-Pulse.

Buttigieg supports the RFS, stopping the misuse of SREs and investing in climate research.

During the CNN/Des Moines Register debate in Des Moines Jan. 14, Buttigieg said, “Pretty much all of us propose that we move on from fossil fuels, but the question is how are we going to make sure any of this gets done? People have been saying the right things in these debates for decades.”

His plan for rural America calls for setting standards to achieve net-zero emissions from fuel combustion. It also states there should be investments in research and development, and demonstration to develop and commercialize advanced biofuels. But his climate plan also says he will “immediately enact more stringent vehicle emission standards.” Buttigieg also would require all new passenger vehicles sold be zero-emissions by 2035, and all heavy-duty vehicles sold be net-zero emissions by 2040.

Judge said she was also impressed by Warren’s willingness to learn about biofuels. Warren toured an ethanol plant in Dyersville, Iowa, in June.

“Farmers are hurting, and they need a partner in the White House who has a clear, predictable policy on renewables and trade. I’m in this fight with them all the way,” Warren said in a press release from Judge’s group.

According to Warren’s climate plan, she would set standards for vehicle emissions by protecting tax credits for both electric and alternative fuel vehicles.

Except for Sanders, all of the leading candidates in Iowa toured ethanol plants with Judge’s group.

“We didn’t get him to a plant, but we’ve had lots of conversations with his staff and have heard very positive things coming from him this cycle,” Judge said.

According to Biofuels Vision 2020, a bipartisan group tracking the candidates’ stances on biodiesel and ethanol, Sanders is committed to implementing the RFS the way Congress intended and supports long-term extensions of the biodiesel and cellulosic tax credits.

Sanders is pushing for an energy standard encouraging research and development into biofuels, so “biofuels and other sustainable energy is exactly the direction we have got to go,” Sanders said at Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer’s, D-Iowa, fish fry in November.

But Sanders also supports transitioning to electric vehicles. His plan for clean energy calls for going beyond biofuels to “fully electrify and decarbonize our transportation sector” and reach 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030.

peaking to media at the National Biodiesel Conference in Tampa, Donnell Rehagen, CEO of the National Biodiesel Board, said it will be many years before there is a significant infrastructure for electric vehicles.

“In the meantime, do we want to wait for that to happen and do nothing for 15 to 20 years or do we want to embrace the opportunities that biodiesel and renewable diesel have today, to provide a leaner and greener product?” Rehagen said.

The executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board, Grant Kimberley, said the candidates have been hearing about the needs of his industry at numerous events.

“They’re hearing our messages and certainly we are going to have to continue to push those messages forward to make sure they realize it is a very important issue in a state like Iowa,” Kimberley told Agri-Pulse.

Senior officials with national trade groups, the Renewable Fuel Association, Growth Energy, and America Coalition for Ethanol, all say that they’ve been hearing “positive statements” throughout the campaign on biofuels along with reining in SREs.