Opinion Columns & Blogs

It’s time for action to unlock growth of biofuels in Kansas

Jesse McCurry
Jesse McCurry

Kansas farmers are no strangers to adversity. We’ve faced down drought, storms, and voracious pests. We know how to prepare for the lean times and buckle down whenever Mother Nature offers a window to feed and fuel the world.

Kansas farmers are pillars of the rural economy, led by sorghum growers who outproduce those in any other state. Our grains reach markets around the world and feed production at a dozen Kansas ethanol plants that produce nearly 500 million gallons of clean, renewable biofuel each year. Ethanol production alone supports hundreds of thousands of jobs across the heartland, including agriculture and rural manufacturing.

Unfortunately, the challenges facing farmers today have little to do with the weather. Artificial barriers created by politicians have held back access to growing markets and depressed the value of Kansas crops. Amid an escalating trade war, foreign nations are throwing up roadblocks to U.S. exports and our own Environmental Protection Agency is limiting sales of homegrown biofuels.

When it comes to trade, farmers are being targeted – in part – because foreign nations want to hit communities that supported President Trump’s election. They also want to hit America’s top exports, farm products. It’s working. Farm income is down 47 percent over the past five years, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that more than half of all farm operations will lose money in 2018. In response, the White House has vowed to support farm communities, and the USDA is working to keep farmers from going belly-up.

But what the agricultural community really wants is a level playing field. Getting a fair shot at customers overseas may take time, but we should not have to wait years or even months for the EPA to open the market to competition here at home.

Currently, higher ethanol blends, like E15, are a popular fuel choice for drivers in 30 states, including Kansas. E15 offers more octane and costs five to 10 cent less per gallon than the 10 percent blends that are standard nationwide. But the EPA’s rules were drafted before higher ethanol blends hit the market, and they impose outdated restrictions against the sale of E15 from June to mid-September, the biggest driving season of the year.

If the EPA allowed drivers to make their own decisions, higher demand for E15 would create an outlet for billions of bushels of energy-rich crops like sorghum and save drivers millions of dollars at the fuel pump.

Of course, some companies benefit from competition, while others do not. Biofuel opponents have kept E15 locked down during the summer by delaying action at the EPA. Worse, over the last year, the agency destroyed demand for over two billion gallons of ethanol under the Renewable Fuel Standard by granting special waivers to various refineries.

President Trump recently vowed to restore growth in U.S. biofuels, saying an E15 fix was “very close.” But biofuel producers and their farm suppliers are running out of time. The previous EPA administrator promised a fix too. It never happened.

It’s up to the new EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, to act on the president’s promise. Farmers and drivers would benefit from year-round E15, and Kansas leaders like Rep. Kevin Yoder and Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts are well-positioned to press the EPA for action. They should make it clear to regulators in Washington that excuses and delays will no longer be tolerated.

Jesse McCurry is executive director of the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission & Producers Association.