The harvest is just about over for farmers in Illinois. Their harvested crops will go from field to fork across the nation and around the world. Changes to federal rules being harvested in Washington, D.C., however, are ones neither farmers nor consumers want or need.
By the end of the month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will finalize rules around the Renewable Fuel Standard, a program which requires refiners to blend increasing volumes of biofuels into the U.S. gasoline supply each year. The standard is considered one of the most successful federal programs in history, and for good reason. In the 10 years that the standard has been in existence, oil imports have been cut by one-third, the equivalent of 8.4 million cars have been removed from the road through reduced CO2 emissions and more than 73,000 direct and indirect jobs have been created in Illinois alone.
In its infinite wisdom, however, the EPA is proposing scaling back the volume of ethanol blended into the fuel supply. Their logic: gas consumption has declined, so should ethanol volumes. Beyond tampering with a federal program that actually works, such actions by the EPA send a chilling message of uncertainty to farmers across the nation.
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Of course, with floods, droughts, poor soil conditions, volatile prices, farmers live with uncertainty on a regular basis. But this variety of uncertainty is very different. It’s completely arbitrary, entirely avoidable and thoroughly politicized. And it couldn’t come at a worse possible time, either.
According to the Illinois Corn Growers Association, farm incomes are forecast to decline by an estimated 47 percent in 2015, down 68 percent from its 2013 high. These figures are worse than projected, and have steadily dried up investment in an ethanol product many farmers rely on for income. Farmers are the most prominent of those impacted by the ethanol standard uncertainty, but the impact is and will be felt more broadly. The uncertainty affects the financial health of all those who sell to or buy from farmers: farm equipment manufacturers and dealers, ethanol manufacturers and raw materials suppliers, among many others. And should the economy slow down in 2016, as many predict, the economic harm would be compounded.
As we head into the 2016 presidential election, we will see candidates bend over backwards making countless promises to win votes. We saw the same scenario play out with our sitting president when he campaigned in Iowa in 2008 and embraced the ethanol standard. As President Obama heads to Paris for an environmental summit — the largest gathering of its kind about a single subject — he’d do well to remember that he can’t secure a legacy by forgetting the past.
What the past 10 years has told us is that, given its track record, we should not only be protecting the standard, but expanding it. President Obama should stick to his campaign promise and the EPA should follow congressional intent so farmers, innovators and investors can do their work for America to harvest the benefits.
Greg Guenther is a farmer in St. Clair County and a member of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.