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Commentary: A Matter of Balance


By Gary Truitt

In our world of extremes, the concept of balance has been lost. Today, something is either right or wrong, offensive or acceptable. There are only two opposite solutions to a problem or position on an issue. Perhaps this is a result of our digital age where everything is made up of 0s and 1s, not 0.5. This is the case for an important agricultural issue currently in the headlines.

Of late, the ethanol industry has been obsessed with the issue of small refiner waivers. This is not a new program but has been part of the Renewable Fuels Standard since the beginning. At first, the EPA only granted these waivers to refineries facing bankruptcy.  In 2017, a court ruled that the agency was too strict and should grant the waivers to those facing “significant economic hardship” from complying with the terms of the RFS. The EPA then started granting more waivers, and that caught the attention of the renewable fuels sector.

Ethanol groups charged the agency was granting waivers to refineries that were profitable and that it was just a way for the oil industry to avoid blending less ethanol. There may be some truth to this charge on the surface. The agency announced 31 small refinery waivers Friday afternoon. Yet, in recent weeks, the rhetoric has become more shrill and has moved from some waivers are bad to all waivers are bad. “Small refinery exemptions continue to transform the RFS into a voluntary program for roughly one-third of the nation’s refineries,” said Scott Richman, Chief Economist of the Renewable Fuels Association.

A lot of the coverage of this issue in the ag media has been a bit one-sided. Most of us support ethanol and, perhaps, have been too quick to jump on the bandwagon and not as circumspect as we should have been. This was brought to my attention by a small, farmer-owned refinery that pointed out how these waivers have helped them actually increase ethanol blending. They pointed out that the waiver program can have some positive benefits for the ethanol sector and for the rural economy that is served by some smaller refineries.

When we aired a story that presented both sides of the issue, we got some blow back from the ethanol sector which did not like us mentioning the other side of the story. This leads me back to the issue of balance.

The ag industry is a very interconnected industry. Ethanol producers depend on refiners, just as livestock producers depend on corn producers. We in agriculture are far too quick to throw stones at each other.  Small farmers don’t like big farmers; livestock producers complain when grain prices go up; and regional differences continue to divide the dairy industry. A bit more tolerance and understanding would better serve us all.

It is certainly true that the oil industry, in general, is not a friend of renewable energy and has exerted its considerable political clout and extensive financial resources to stifle the growth of ethanol. In this they have been abetted by some sectors of the ag industry.  So a strong fight to increase the biofuels share of the fuel tank must continue. However, this should not include throwing some of our friends under the bus.

The RFS is good policy if administered fairly and properly. The EPA has a history of making rulings based on what group has the most political clout or is making the most noise.  This has resulted in policy by litigation as both sides take the agency to court. A bit more balance is needed in the administration of the RFS and in the ag media’s coverage of it.