A Historic Day for the Ethanol Industry

FROM THE AUGUST ISSUE: An inside look at President Trump's June visit to SIRE celebrating year-round E15.
By Geoff Cooper | August 01, 2019

On June 11, more than 1,000 farmers and ethanol supporters gathered at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy in Council Bluffs for what will undoubtedly be remembered as a momentous day in the annals of the American ethanol industry. For the first time in nearly a decade—and only the fourth time in history—a sitting president of the United States visited an ethanol plant. But this wasn’t just a photo-op visit—this one had special meaning and a definite purpose. President Donald Trump came to SIRE, a member of the Renewable Fuels Association, to celebrate the completion of regulatory amendments that finally allow year-round sales of E15. Two members of the president’s cabinet—Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler—were also on hand for the event, along with some of our industry’s strongest champions in Congress and state government.

Fittingly, SIRE sits just a few miles away from Council Bluffs’ Mid-America Center, where eight months earlier Trump directed the EPA to get started on the amendments necessary to “unleash the power of E15 to fuel our country all year long.” While the mood June 11 was indeed celebratory and attendees expressed their gratitude to Trump for keeping his promise on E15, the visit also gave us the rare opportunity to share a few concerns directly and candidly with the president.

Upon arriving at SIRE, Trump was greeted by Mike Jerke, SIRE CEO; Karol King, SIRE chairman; Mike Naig, Iowa secretary of agriculture; Steve Wellman, Nebraska director of agriculture; and me. Jerke and I were privileged to escort the president on a short tour of the plant, where he was introduced to local farmers Kevin Ross (and his sons Hudson and Axten) and Darrel McAlexander, along with Rick Larson of Larson Farms Trucking.

The farmers thanked Trump for honoring his commitment on year-round E15 and spoke briefly about flooding and trade challenges. McAlexander also let the president know Renewable Fuel Standard small refinery exemptions are hurting rural America and asked for his help in stopping them, to which the president replied, “I’ll look into it. We’ll look at it.”

We then escorted the president into the distillers grains storage building. Trump was interested in learning more about coproducts from ethanol production and asked several good questions. There, he met SIRE Plant Manager Dan Wych and three other SIRE employees, and learned more about the ethanol process.

From there, the president moved into a tent where more than 1,000 enthusiastic farmers and ethanol fans were gathered. He was introduced and welcomed by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, whose tireless efforts to secure year-round E15 and defend the RFS have been absolutely extraordinary.

More than a dozen RFA members sat in the first two rows to watch the president give a rousing speech, in which he strongly underscored the important role ethanol plays in enhancing our energy security and stimulating rural economies. The president asked three guests he’d met earlier to join him on stage, including farmer Kevin Ross, the National Corn Growers Association’s first vice president; SIRE employee Kenny Wilcox; and E15 fuel retailer Randy Gard, from Bosselman Pump & Pantry.

In an especially poignant moment, after thanking Trump for year-round E15, Ross cautioned that “EPA’s oil refinery waivers threaten to undo your good works.” Wheeler and Perdue were seated in the front row next to me—and they heard this message directly as well.

While our message of caution on small refinery exemptions was clearly articulated, time will tell if that message translates into positive action. So far, the signals are mixed. EPA’s 2020 renewable volume obligation proposal failed to prospectively reallocate expected small refinery exemptions and essentially ignored a court order to restore 500 million gallons of inappropriate waivers from 2016.

Still, the president seemed to understand the challenges described by the farmers and ethanol producers he met that day, and he expressed a sincere willingness to help address those concerns.
We’re confident the president heard us, and hopeful that he’ll take the same personal interest in addressing small refinery exemptions that he took in eliminating the needless and antiquated summertime barrier to E15.

Author: Geoff Cooper
President and CEO
Renewable Fuels Association