Ethanol Advocates March their Message to Capitol Hill
by Kristin Brekke
A late-winter snowstorm and gray, windy skies didn’t dampen the spirits of the ethanol supporters who gathered in Washington, DC last month for a fly-in organized by the American Coalition for Ethanol. The friendly faces and warm handshakes of more than thirty grassroots advocates told ethanol’s story in one of the most effective ways possible.
“Ethanol has a great story to tell, of its benefits to agriculture, the economy, the environment, and our nation’s energy security. And when this story is told in person, through examples and stories and first-hand experiences, that is when it has the greatest impact,” said Brian Jennings, Executive Vice President of ACE. “The time these ethanol supporters spent on the Hill was very beneficial to the cause, and the way they communicated the message was extremely effective.”
The participants divided into small groups to visit the offices of more than 70 Members of Congress over the two-day event. Meetings were held with the Members themselves, as schedules allowed, or with the staffers in charge of agriculture and energy issues.
Three key messages were communicated on the Hill: the need to overcome the E10 blend wall, the financial challenges facing the ethanol industry, and the fact that ethanol is a clean, sustainable alternative to fossil fuel.
Before heading out to Capitol Hill on afternoon of March 2, the group spent the morning together discussing key messages and hearing from Beltway insiders who gave them the lay of the land. In addition to Jennings and Eric Washburn, legislative counsel for ACE, a presentation was made by Tara Billingsley, part of the professional staff for the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She said the committee is “very engaged and motivated on the issue” of ethanol.
Billingsley feels that in the short-term, lower oil prices may in fact help the ethanol industry because demand for gasoline may increase.
Tom Buis, President of the National Farmers Union, spoke to the ACE members about the impact ethanol has on rural America, citing the desire of many rural youth to stay on the farm or in their small communities. But without economic opportunity it is just not feasible to stay. Ethanol has brought economic opportunity to rural America, which changes the landscape and brings hope for the next generation of family farmers and small business owners.
The group was privileged to have Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, come to meet with them before the Hill visits began. She acknowledged ethanol as “part of the solution” in her opening remarks.
"We're trying to move to a different fuel mix in this country," Jackson said. "Corn-based ethanol is here, part of our mix now."
She spoke at length about the E10 blend wall and the issue of indirect land use change, encouraging the ethanol industry to provide as much scientific data as possible on both issues.
The blend wall dominated conversation during the question-and-answer time following her remarks, as it did with Billingsley. Jackson said she knows the blend wall issue is something the industry is very concerned about, and she spoke highly of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s command of the ethanol issue. USDA and EPA often work jointly on biofuel-related issues.
Supporters gave personal examples to the Administrator of how the E10 cap and nearness to market saturation are impacting ethanol production.
Low ethanol prices, often below the cost of production, have plagued the industry over the past year. Lenders are nervous due to the uncertainty of the long-term market. One ethanol plant represented, which even in these tough economic times has stayed current with payments to its lender, has had all lines of credit closed.
“It was extremely powerful for Administrator Jackson to hear first-hand from ethanol producers who are being impacted on a daily basis by the blend wall,” Jennings said. “It put a face on the issue and personally communicated the importance of allowing mid-range ethanol blends. This conversation with the EPA could not have come at a better time given that the E15 waiver application was filed only days later.”
Jackson spoke of cellulosic ethanol and the “next generation” of renewable fuels as something that needs to be embraced. Supporters agreed, but illustrated to her the direct relationship between corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol – cellulosic ethanol will not succeed without a healthy corn ethanol industry. And overcoming the blend wall is key to it all. Without the market certainty provided by the allowance of mid-range blends, corn ethanol will continue to suffer and investment in cellulosic ethanol is at risk of grinding to a halt.
The people participating in the ACE fly-in came from a wide variety of geographies and roles in the industry, bringing a variety of voices to the effort.
The group included corn and sugar beet farmers, ranchers, and ethanol producers – both currently producing and with projects under development. Ethanol process design and design-build firms, engineering and laboratory companies, and rural electric cooperatives. Many different occupations were represented, including banking, teaching, accounting, value-added agriculture, farming, renewable fuels development, and fuel marketing.
“These face-to-face meetings with the EPA and Members of Congress have made some important connections that I believe will prove critically important in moving ethanol forward,” Jennings said. “This event was a perfect example of how American Coalition for Ethanol members from all walks of life can be ethanol’s best spokespeople.”
Visit ACE's blog at www.ethanol.typepad.com for reports and photos from the event.