When Illinois farmers sell wheat, rye or oats on the open market, they can rightly expect that supply and demand will set the price, with no interference from foreign cartels or big grocery chains quietly pulling cereal off the shelf. The same isn’t true for the state’s largest crop, corn. That’s because corn is a major feedstock for the production of ethanol, and ethanol remains the single greatest threat to those who seek to monopolize consumer options at the gas pump.
Oil ministers at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) recently joined Russia in a renewed effort to cut global energy supplies and push up the price of fuel. These efforts have been aided by oil interests at home who work to keep higher ethanol blends off the market, protecting the profits of fossil fuel producers. And the results are clear. Prior to the OPEC deal, federal analysists at the Department of Energy were forecasting average national gasoline prices of under $2.00 per gallon in January. Since then, however, drivers in southern Illinois have watched prices rise to $2.40 or more.
Ethanol represents a cleaner option than gasoline, with carbon footprint at least 43 percent smaller than gasoline according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It also costs less and increases the octane content of fuel, delivering greater performance for drivers. With all these advantages, farmers should be doing just fine. Instead, they’ve had to fight for the right to sell every gallon of homegrown fuel.
Fortunately for Illinois, the11-year-old Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) ensures that producers in agricultural states can’t be cut out of the free market. The bipartisan policy allows homegrown biofuels to supply a growing share of our energy needs, enough to displace 527 million barrels of oil in 2015 alone. Biofuels are now added to 97 percent of U.S. fuel in blends ranging from 10 percent to 85 percent ethanol. The RFS has been the most successful energy policy working to protect competition and reduce U.S. reliance on oil.
As a result, consumer demand for ethanol blends has swelled, and biofuel production now supports hundreds of thousands of American jobs, many in Midwest communities hit hard by the loss of other manufacturing industries. These jobs are needed now more than ever. According to the USDA, net farm income in 2016 declined for the third straight year – reaching the lowest point since 2009. And a record surplus of grain could force farmers to sell their crops at a loss, undermining the very foundation of rural growth.
These communities are now under siege by oil lobbyists who hide behind the false promise of free markets to justify the very opposite – a return to monopoly control over consumer options at the pump. And they are working overtime to convince long-time champions like U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (IL-15), a senior voice in the Energy and Commerce Committee, to allow the RFS to be watered down, capped, or eliminated altogether.
That’s why it is vital that farmers, consumers, and U.S. energy advocates of all stripes work diligently to remind our representatives in Congress why strong, bipartisan majorities enacted the RFS. It’s keeping our air clean, reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil, and protecting the affordable options that consumers deserve. And in states like Illinois, where agriculture production is the backbone of a strong and growing economy, it is a shield against market manipulation that protects thousands of hard-working families.
Former Sen. Talent currently serves as Chairman of Americans for Energy Security and Innovation (AESI), which supports homegrown, renewable energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.