South Dakota’s delegation fighting changes to ethanol standard

Farm Forum

WASHINGTON — South Dakota’s congressional delegation is pushing the Obama administration to reverse course on proposed changes that would significantly reduce the amount of ethanol in the country’s fuel supply.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced in November it was proposing reductions by nearly 3 billion gallons in the amount of biofuels required to be blended into gasoline in 2014. The EPA has said the additive had become less necessary in light of fuel-efficient engines and lower fuel demand.

A deadline for comments on the proposed change was Jan. 28. South Dakota’s delegation hit out at the changes as soon as they were announced and has continued to push the Obama administration to reconsider.

The latest effort came last week as Sens. John Thune, a Republican, and Tim Johnson, a Democrat, signed onto a letter with 29 other senators to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven, a Republican, and Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, also signed onto the letter.

Among other things, the letter says the U.S. would be more reliant on foreign oil if the proposed changes go forward and that farmers would be hurt most by the changes.

“The Administration’s proposal is a significant step backward — undermining the goal of increasing biofuels production as a domestic alternative to foreign oil consumption,” the letter reads. “Further, the proposed waiver places at risk both the environmental benefits from ongoing development of advanced biofuels and rural America’s economic future.”

The letter from senators comes after a similar missive sent last week from members of the House. That letter was signed by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., who has led House opposition to proposed changes. The letter says that the changes could put the renewable fuel industry at risk.

“The significant reduction in renewable volume obligations under this proposed rule could destabilize the renewable fuel industry and send the wrong message to investors,” the letter reads. “This risks jobs and threatens the development of advanced and cellulosic biofuels that bring higher-level ethanol and biodiesel blends to consumers.”

The House letter had 30 signatories, including Noem. She led the effort to write the letter along with Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.

Farmers and biofuels industry leaders have credited the 2007 law, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard, with ensuring high crop prices, especially for corn. The law required oil companies to blend billions of gallons of biofuels but gives federal officials the ability to adjust requirements. Many farmers fear that reducing the requirement would lead to a further drop in crop prices after a large drop in corn prices in 2013.

The letters are the most recent effort by South Dakota lawmakers to oppose changes to the renewable fuel requirement. Johnson publicly lambasted the EPA on the day it announced the changes, saying it looked like the EPA was listening to the concerns of “Big Oil” and not rural communities.

“This proposal would be a step backward for energy security and it could harm our ability to continue developing and commercializing advanced and cellulosic biofuels, which promise even greater environmental benefits,” he said in November.

Johnson, Thune and Noem have all also lobbied federal officials to reconsider the proposed changes.

As a two-month comment period on proposed changes ends, the Obama administration has given no indication that efforts to reverse the proposed rule are having an impact on their thinking.

Supporters of the changes say they are needed because there is less need for ethanol and other biofuels than anticipated. Other critics say that ethanol has contributed to rising food prices and hurt the environment because pressure to grow more crops has led to planting in lands that would have otherwise be set aside for conservation.

The EPA has said it still sees renewable fuels as an important part of a comprehensive energy policy but that the current requirements are more than needed or could be used.