When U.S. presidential candidates campaign in Iowa every four years, one of the first issues they are sure to be asked by voters in the ag-heavy state is whether they would support continued federal subsidies for ethanol and other biofuels.
Across the Mississippi River in Illinois, it’s safe to say support is just as great. The state produces 1.8 billion gallons of ethanol and 168 million gallons of biodiesel annually, according to the Energy Information Agency. This makes it easily the state’s primary renewable energy product.
The renewable fuel, produced from plants like corn and soybeans, is big business in the Midwest, providing a key market for farmers and helping support thousands of jobs in mostly rural areas.
A half-dozen federal lawmakers heard from some of these producers Wednesday morning at a “Biofuels Policy Summit” held at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur.
They had a sympathetic ear as all the lawmakers present — Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville; Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro; Darin LaHood, R-Peoria; Randy Feenstra, R-IA; Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-IA-2; and Jim Baird, R-IN. — were affiliated with the Congressional Biofuels Caucus.
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The message on both ends was clear: the federal government should extend biofuel tax credits set to expire in 2022 and pass legislation that would establish a minimum octane standard that would lead to a greater level of blending ethanol with gasoline.
“We learned that the producers that came to this event, the farmers, the folks who represent many institutions in agriculture, they’re with us on our policies,” Davis said. “They want to see us have a future for biofuels in this country. They’re sick and tired of being shouted down by far-left environmental activists who want to not recognize the clean-burning fuels that we have in our biofuels industry right now.”
In 2005, Congress enacted a Renewable Fuel Standard setting minimum requirements for the use of renewable fuels like ethanol. Today, most gasoline contains about 10 percent ethanol.
Ethanol-blended gasoline burns cleaner than regular gasoline, leading many to consider it a key immediate source of cutting transportation sector fossil fuel emissions as gas-guzzling vehicles continue to make up the vast majority of cars on the road.
“We the ag community believe ethanol is a high-octane, low-carbon fuel that can be very important transition fuel for our country,” said Richard Guebert, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau and a farmer in Southern Illinois.
Though all federal officials in attendance were Republicans, the biofuel industry has bipartisan support in Congress, especially from lawmakers in Midwestern states.
Nearly all professed to the fuel’s importance to the Midwest economy, but there are warning signs in the present and future.
“Demand and domestic use is at best steady,” said John Caupert, executive director of the National Corn to Ethanol Research Center at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. “By some accounts, we might even be in decline.”
Long-term, significant questions remain, especially as many states and the federal government push policies promoting electric vehicles as the ultimate solution to cutting carbon emissions from the transportation sector.
In Illinois, lawmakers are debating a massive omnibus energy bill that, among many other things, sets a goal for having at least 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. This would be done by building out the infrastructure needed to support EVs and offering subsidies for those who purchase them.
President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order calling for half the fleet of U.S. automobiles sold in 2030 to be electric. General Motors is aiming to phase out internal combustion engines completely by 2035.
Though biofuels have cut greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, some believe it to be a half-step prolonging the use of fossil fuels, similar to how cleaner-burning natural gas has replaced coal in the electric generation sector.
Yet lawmakers Wednesday noted how the infrastructure for electric vehicles is currently nowhere near where it needs to be to ensure a lower carbon footprint than biofuels.
After all, most of the electric grid is still powered by non-renewable carbon sources.
“They’re trying to force electric vehicle technology onto the roadways in Illinois at the expense of cleaner burning biofuels,” Davis said.
“Whenever we’re measuring a carbon footprint, we don’t do it just at the fuel pipe or in the exhaust pipe,” Bost added.
The Republican lawmakers repeatedly assured farmers present that ethanol would be front-and-center of ag policy if the party takes back control of Congress in 2022, though they acknowledged their farm state Democratic allies, like Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, who have been pushing pro-biofuel positions as well.
“People in Washington, D.C., don’t know farms, they don’t know the work that you do, how hard it is, how the pandemic affected you, how their government policies affect you,” Miller-Meeks said. “So we’re here to learn from you and take your voice back to Washington, D.C. to enact good agricultural policy.”
The event, hosted in an air-conditioned tent sponsored by Archer Daniels Midland Co., was well-attended, though question-and-answer time was limited to just a handful of pre-selected questions.
PHOTOS: Day One of Farm Progress Show