On Jan. 20, 2021, Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States. Throughout the many twists and turns of the 2020 presidential campaign, biofuels and agriculture remained at the forefront of the conversation. Up until Election Day, both President Trump and President-elect Biden brought issues to the national stage which will impact the future of biofuels and agricultural sectors. Both candidates supported biofuels, American farmers and a strong rural economy. During a time when the country seems divided due to various social and political issues, biofuels remain a bipartisan solution.
The Importance of Biofuels
When President-elect Biden takes office in January, he will face many challenges. The devastating effects of climate change are well under way, Americans are living through a global health pandemic and economic growth is badly needed. Taking action on biofuels policy is something the incoming administration could do to address all these issues right away on Day One.
Ethanol is a clean-burning, renewable alternative to fossil fuels. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), ethanol reduces consumer impacts of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 42% as compared to traditional gasoline. Biofuels replace harmful fuel additives that pose serious health risks, including worsening air pollution, which in turn makes already-vulnerable urban communities even more susceptible to COVID-19. Higher blends of biofuels also support farmers and communities across the country. Biofuel blends like Unleaded 88 are an affordable, readily available alternative to petroleum that are approved for use in essentially all existing cars, trucks and SUVs on the road today.
Leaders from both parties recognize these benefits and have the opportunity to work together to increase access to higher biofuel blends for all Americans, addressing a number of key national priorities.
Supporting our Farmers
Making E15 available across the nation will drive demand for an additional 2 billion bushels of U.S. grain annually. As farmers continually increase yields without using more land, generating new corn demand through nationwide E15 would help balance the market and utilize surplus grain, helping to make agriculture profitable by growing a reliable market. And when agriculture is profitable, it is easier for farmers to incorporate emerging technologies to make U.S. agriculture more and more sustainable and in sync with nature.
During his candidacy, President-elect Biden promised to protect biofuels and the integrity of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). In response to a farm group candidate survey, the Biden team stated, “From day one, we will use every tool at our disposal, including the federal fleet and the federal government’s purchasing power, to promote and advance renewable energy, ethanol and other biofuels to help rural America and our nation’s farmers, and will honor the critical role the renewable fuel industry plays in supporting the rural economy and the leadership role American agriculture will play in our fight against climate change.” Indeed, biofuels are a critical, growing domestic agriculture market. POET alone processes 13% of the U.S. corn crop for ethanol, contributes $1.4 billion in household incomes and supports 26,000 jobs across the U.S.
Every four years, Democrats from across the country join together to craft the Democratic Party’s Platform which outlines the party’s policy agenda on key issues, principles and values that the party — including the leader of the party, President-elect Biden — will embrace.
The 2020 Democratic Platform specifically mentions partnering with America’s farmers to make U.S. agriculture carbon neutral through popular, voluntary programs for sustainable agriculture which will “open up new revenue streams for farmers in energy and waste products, and grow bio-based manufacturing jobs.” The Platform also calls on Congress to strengthen the RFS and support higher biofuel blends.
The Biden-Harris administration can strengthen the rural economy by upholding the RFS and putting an end to Small Refinery Exemptions (SREs). In a statement regarding SREs issued in August 2020, then-candidate Biden stated, “Those waivers severely cut ethanol production, costing farmers income and ethanol plant workers their jobs… The Renewable Fuel Standard marks our bond with our farmers and our commitment to a thriving rural economy.”
In September, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a decision to reject a majority of the 68 retroactive SREs from petroleum refiners seeking to illegally bypass the RFS requirements from as far back as 2011. However, there are still over 30 pending SRE applications from 2019-2020. The Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court for additional time to respond to the 2019-2020 applications. If granted, the SREs would allow refiners to hand in credits that account for less than the total 2020 biofuel volume mandate. It is unclear if a decision will be made before the Trump administration leaves office in January or if President-elect Biden will oversee the decision once in office.
Ethanol producers and farmers have faced challenging economic impacts due to COVID-19. Granting the pending SRE applications would further increase demand destruction. While President-elect Biden has not stated how he plans to handle the pending SREs, the decision represents an opportunity for the administration to deliver on promises made during his campaign.
Biofuels & Ag to Solve Climate Change
President-elect Biden has promised to begin tackling the existential threat of climate change on Day One of his administration. Biden campaigned on using agriculture to address climate change. In the Biden-Harris Plan to “Build Back Better” in rural America, the president-elect promises to strengthen the agricultural sector by “promoting biofuels, and partnering with farmers to achieve net-zero emissions, giving farmers new sources of income in the process.” This has proven to be a winning policy for rural voters. In response to a July survey of potential voters in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, 64% of those surveyed agreed that farmers can be a bigger part of the climate change solution by driving sustainable innovation and new bio-based products that help replace petroleum.
Biofuels and agriculture can work together to solve climate change by immediately expanding access to E15 across the country. The nationwide transition from E10 to E15 would reduce emissions to the equivalent of removing an additional 4.5 to 6.2 million vehicles from the road.
In addition to expanding access to E15, the Biden-Harris administration should remove or improve retail fuel labeling requirements for E15. E15 compatible vehicles represent more than 97% of vehicle miles traveled. However, EPA labeling requirements force fuel retailers to include hazardous looking labels on E15 pumps. These labels give consumers the false impression that E15 is dangerous for their vehicle. There has never been any evidence that E15 damages engines and consumers deserve labeling that is accurate and fair. All fuel pumps should be labeled the same or the labeling specifically for E15 should be updated to make it clear the fuel is compatible with most vehicles on the road. This would allow more Americans to use E15 which drive down GHGs from transportation.
Addressing GHG emissions from transportation by expanding access to E15 is the first step to addressing the climate crisis. The Biden-Harris administration should also consider leveraging the enormous potential of the agricultural sector as a key tool in the fight against climate change.
Biden’s climate action plan includes “leveraging agriculture to remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground.” According to the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action (USFRA), American farmland already stores 100 times more carbon than the U.S. emits every year. As time goes on, voluntary practices like precision ag, low-till, no-till and ridge-till farming, and planting cover crops – backed with market-based financial incentives – have enormous potential to make agriculture an even bigger carbon sink and make major improvements in environmental health.
The Biden team has set many goals for the next four years. It’s always challenging to move legislation through a divided government. Democrats won the presidency and maintained control of the U.S House of Representatives, but depending on the results of run-off elections in Georgia, Republicans could maintain their majority in the U.S. Senate. To get through both chambers and the President’s desk, any new climate or renewable fuel policy will need strong bipartisan support.
While urban voters helped elect Mr. Biden president, rural voters returned many Republican members of Congress to Washington. The result is a nation deeply divided along political and demographic lines, the impact of which could be significant for issues like agriculture, the environment and the economy.
Fortunately, biofuels have been and will remain a bipartisan solution to issues that impact the entire country — regardless of political affiliation or geographic location.
Biofuels may be the engine that keeps the rural economy running, but they also offer significant benefits for urban Americans. In the era of COVID-19, respiratory health is especially important. However, individuals living near major transportation arteries congested with traffic are often disproportionately affected by air pollution from tailpipe emissions. According to the American Lung Association, the proximity to traffic pollution not only makes these populations more vulnerable to COVID-19; it also increases the risk of asthma, birth defects and cancers, among other health effects. Ethanol lowers harmful tailpipe particulate matter and replaces carcinogens and dangerous BTEX chemicals in gasoline. It also drives savings at the pump, making ethanol the most affordable, low-carbon fuel available for the massive fleet of conventional vehicles on the road today and for decades to come.
The Path Forward
The path forward with a divided government relies on bipartisan support and policies that deliver solutions for all Americans — from major cities to small towns. Americans understand the importance of biofuels, and they showed their support by electing both Republican and Democratic biofuel champions. Biofuel’s indisputable benefits and bipartisan appeal gives the Biden-Harris administration a unique opportunity to tackle climate, air quality and economic recovery from Day One.
By enforcing the RFS, ending SREs, setting blending targets according to the clear intent of Congress and increasing infrastructure funding and incentives for fuel retailers offering higher biofuel blends, the Biden-Harris administration can immediately take steps to strengthen the agricultural sector while allowing more Americans access to renewable, low-carbon, affordable biofuels and the benefits that come with it.
It is time for both sides of the aisle to meet in the middle on solutions for the nation’s most pressing issues. Increasing access to higher blends of biofuels across the country offers the key to building back a better economy, a cleaner environment and a healthier future — for all Americans.