Corn Commentary

What Facts Are Really Facts?

whats in gas

(This guest blog is provided by Matt Reese who writes for Ohio’s Country Journal).

It can be really hard to know which way to feel about some issues because these days it seems everyone has their own set of “facts” that conclusively proves their point. The problem, of course, is that as soon as you conclusively prove a point, you run into someone else who has an entirely different set of facts that definitively proves their point, which happens to be the opposite view of the first point that was proven. Confused yet? I know I am.

One only has to sit and listen to a political debate on any issue between any candidates of any party to get all caught up in a muddled mess of my-facts-versus-your-facts. Then there is often a behind-the-scenes reporter who does a fact check on the aforementioned facts to clarify the situation. Unfortunately, more often than not, these fact checks often just compound the problem by providing another opportunity to spin the issue with a set of suspect facts about the facts.

Of course, in my line of work I see this all the time in great detail with the wide variety of complicated issues facing food and agriculture. This is certainly true in the current debate over the Environmental Protection Agency’s impending decision about the levels set in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The recent story by Joel Penhorwood on this issue highlights the divergent facts in the RFS debate. Here is an excerpt:

ACCF (an anti-ethanol group) Executive Vice President Dave Banks responded strongly to the outcry by Ohio ag and pro-ethanol groups.

“I think these guys sometimes get lost in this weird, parallel universe in which they actually convince themselves that this mountain of damning, definitive science and data about corn ethanol’s environmental impact doesn’t exist, or that folks don’t actually know about it,” Banks said in a statement.

That environmental impact Banks spoke of is one of negative consequence. The ACCF points to research that they say shows the production of ethanol doubles greenhouse emissions when compared to gasoline over 30 years, making it a dirtier fuel in the end — a highly disputed claim. 

“It’s just misinformation,” said Ohio grain farmer Chad Kemp about the anti-RFS ads. “The things they’re saying there is no scientific backing for. They’re trying to get the people to jump on board with it and basically, their idea is to kill renewable fuels in this country.”

The heated debate over the RFS really ramped up in recent weeks with dueling ad campaigns in Ohio and Washington, D.C. highlighting very different sets of facts pertaining to ethanol’s impact on the environment, the economy and so forth. So whose facts are right?

In the end, the complexities of these various issues generally boil down to some basic truths. The key for me is getting down to those basic truths and sorting out how I feel about those. So, here are some facts about the RFS (that are really facts) that helped me to form my opinion.

  1. Congress created and approved the RFS.
  2. Businesses planned their investment strategies based upon the RFS.
  3. The RFS was implemented and businesses responded as they saw fit.

While there are many more nuances to the RFS debate, for me this set of undisputable facts is reason enough to support it. The government made a deal. Regardless of whether you like the deal or not, it was made and I believe it should be upheld and seen through to fruition. Maybe this set of facts doesn’t address your primary concerns about he RFS. Here are more real facts.

  1. Ethanol offsets the purchase of foreign oil.
  2. Ethanol is made from corn produced by American farmers.

I would rather support farmers in the U.S. with my energy dollar than who knows who I am supporting when I use petroleum.

In the end, there is usually at least some kernel of truth in either side of these debates. Which facts matter to you? The way I sort through them is by identifying the key (and real) facts of the matter that really matter to me.

Either way, the RFS is a no-brainer in my book.

Huffington Post Goes Green in Support of Ethanol over Oil

Big Oil concocted the blend wall myth to protect its own profits, at least according to an article run today in the Huffington Post. Carefully delineating the events which led to the EPA’s reduction in required volume obligations announced in May, author Paul Alexander questions,” will the myth of a blend wall destroy the RFS, on which a good portion of the renewable fuel business is built, or will hard facts prevail?”

The piece, a departure from the anti-corn ethanol rhetoric often seen in national media, thoughtfully explores the connections behind the policy shift. From an Obama administration official reported by Reuters to have met with anti-RFS lobbying groups during his White House tenure to carefully detailing Department of Energy statement which affirm the viability of higher ethanol blends, Alexander crafts a solid argument that the blend wall arose from pro-oil propagandists.

Logically, he draws the seemingly obvious conclusion. Backing away from the RFS does equate to running toward a fossil fuel future. For an administration touting its environmental street cred, the move seems illogical at best.

Take a moment to read the article in full by clicking here.

From rallies in the Heartland to a flood of messages sent to the Hill, ethanol’s proponents must make their voice heard. Today, Alexander proved to be a prominent ally in this critical struggle to grow a cleaner, greener future for Americans by pointing out the current path only adds to the green in the pockets of Big Oil.

Love It or Hate It- NPR Has Mixed Emotions on Ethanol

NPR needs an all-hands-on-deck meeting. Recently, the reporters covering ethanol seem to be operating under almost opposing sets of assumptions. Sometimes, they hit it out of the park. Defying anti-ethanol propaganda disguised as conventional wisdom, they cut through the crud and achieve the accuracy journalists value above all.

But, sometimes, they fall victim to the trap laid by anti-ethanol activists who have worked for years to ingrain their false facts so deeply that they achieve an aura of un-questionability.

In this story from June 10, NPR reporter Grant Gerlock tackles why U.S. farmers and the EPA disagree vocally on changes made to the Renewable Volume Obligations outlined in the Renewable Fuel Standard. Gerlock speaks with a variety of guests, from the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Jeremy Martin to Iowa State University’s Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist. While this may appear to be a good faith effort to present a well-rounded view of the situation, Gerlock’s unquestioning acceptance of anti-ethanol rhetoric quickly becomes apparent.

Speaking with USDA researcher Rob Mitchell, a proponent of switchgrass as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol, Gerlock makes a mental leap based upon the assumption that some ethanol is good and some is bad. He just assumes that corn-based ethanol could not possibly lower greenhouse gas emissions – even in comparison with oil. While both products do so, it does a grave disservice to suggest that the one more widely available today does not offer this important benefit.

To read the transcript (and see the incredible leap of misinformed faith for yourself), click here.

Yet, in a piece by Michael Tomsic that host Audie Cornish highlighted, NPR accepts NASCAR’s assertion that corn-based ethanol blends have been key to their efforts to make the sport “more green.” Discussing the move to ethanol, Tomsic sites that switching to a 15 percent ethanol blend has “reduced emissions by 20 percent” for NASCAR.

To read the transcript, click here.

Notably, he not only touts the virtue of using E15, he also points out that legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. no longer has concerns about how his car will perform on the fuel after having a chance to use it.

Yes, NPR showed in the first instance that it can fall prey but, in the second, it showed that others within the organization can find the positive, honest story America’s farmers have to tell about ethanol- the story which they have raced feverishly to share.

Want to say kudos highlighting NASCAR Green? Want to set the record straight on corn-based ethanol’s environmental advantage? Either choice, there is a way.

NPR offers listeners the opportunity to submit their comments to the Office of the Ombudsman. Unlike traditional comment sections, the letters submitted are considered carefully. Each week, some are even chosen to be read aloud on the air.

So no matter what you want to say, speak up! They have the story half-right. Your voice can make a difference.

To contact the NPR ombudsman, click here.

Speaking Out for RFS

You might remember the turnout in December 2013 at an EPA hearing after the release of the recalled 2014 volume obligations (RVO) under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Over 100 people from across the country testified on behalf of the RFS. That hearing was held near Washington DC. Imagine what the turnout will be like on June 25 for a hearing on the new and improved EPA proposal that will be held in the heart of the Heartland – Kansas City.

mess-rfsThe industry is already planning to be out in force. “I hope the EPA hears loud and clear from farmers and consumers and biofuels producers about what this proposal really does,” said Renewable Fuels Association president and CEO Bob Dinneen, who spoke passionately at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop last week about all of the ways EPA has worked against biofuels and agriculture. “There’s something desperately wrong with the EPA,” said Dinneen adding that they “seem to have a war on farmers. RFA CEO Bob Dinneen comments at FEW

“We want everybody in the world to show up there,” says Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis of the June 25 hearing. “Everyone ought to weigh in.”

“They got the first one wrong a year and a half ago, they got this one wrong,” said Buis. “We stopped the last one, we’re going to change this one.” Interview with Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis at FEW

American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) Executive Vice President Brian Jennings says they plan to show the power of the people in this industry at the hearing. “We’re going to get a bunch of retailers who are selling E15 and E85 to go to that hearing and tell EPA face-to-face that the blend wall isn’t real,” said Jennings. “We’re going to make sure we get some very persuasive messengers to come deliver a very compelling message to that hearing.” Interview with ACE Executive VP Brian Jennings at FEW

Details about the hearing are expected to be published in the Federal Register this week. The proposal will be open for public comment until July 27.

NCGA with NAFB on Capitol Hill

ww15-ncga-doggettMembers of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting (NAFB) were on Capitol Hill last week talking with lawmakers, administration officials, and industry organizations about topics important to agriculture, and the National Corn Growers Association was happy to once again be part of that event.

NCGA Executive Vice President Jon Doggett, Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs Manager Clint Raine, and Director of Public Policy Zach Kinne addressed several different topics with farm broadcasters from around the country.

Doggett talked about the current situation with the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and the timeline recently announced by EPA to release long overdue volume requirements for biofuels. “We won’t have the numbers until we have the numbers,” said Doggett. “We need to get this done right away and I don’t know that people are necessarily believing what EPA says, I think we’re going to have to wait and see what they do.”

Listen to the interview with Doggett conducting by Agri-Pulse reporter Spencer Chase: Interview with Jon Doggett, NCGA

ww15-ncga-raineRaine discussed NCGA’s comments to the Federal Aviation Administration on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for agriculture. “I think there were about 40,000 comments that were actually submitted,” said Raine. “But I think we’re looking at another 16 months until that final rule comes out.”

Raine says NCGA says unmanned aerial systems offer great potential for farmers, and will ultimately reduce costs, improve efficiency, and make farming operations more sustainable, but there are privacy issues. Interview with Clint Raine, NCGA

ww15-ncga-zachKinne’s area was biotechnology and specifically the recent announcement from the European Union that they would allow member nations the option to ban imports of biotech food and feed. “It would really just be a nightmare when you look at the supply chain and importing of the crops that we produce,” he said. At the same time, NCGA is encouraged by the EU’s approval last week of 17 biotech traits for import. “It’s a little hard to applaud them for not making a decision since 2013 but some of those approvals are corn events,” said Kinne.

In this interview, Kinne also discusses the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. Interview with Zach Kinne, NCGA

Go Grist! Journalist Looks Beyond Media Hype to Find True Story of U.S. Farming

Kudos to Grist for taking a real look at agriculture in Iowa. As the primary season starts, candidates will visit the state and many outlets may off-handedly deride the stances they express on the issues important to farmers. But Liz Core, a Grist journalist, took the time to visit the state and talk to farmers about the issues that they face. What she found is a much deeper, more nuanced understanding of Iowa’s farm families.

“Iowa commodity growers are often demonized for what and how they grow, and monocultures and ethanol aren’t exactly healthy for the planet. But all of the farming families I talked to expressed a deep respect for the land and the desire to take good care of it for the next generation. If we want to understand how and why our agriculture system is the way it is, we’d be wise to approach all farmers with an open mind.”

To read the full article, click here.

Core goes on to introduce three of the farm families she met during her time in Iowa, including CommonGround volunteer Julie Kenney. Showing the real people and exploring their honest concerns, she provides a balanced picture of both agriculture and the impact public policies have upon farmers.

When you take the time to look beyond the sound bites and have an open conversation, a much more interesting story emerges. Through programs such as CommonGround and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the men and women who grow our food start a dialogue with those who buy it to foster this sort of honest, two-way dialogue. Reach out and you might find the same thing that Core did – on or off the farm, most of us want the same things for our families and our country.

Putting Agriculture in the Political Spotlight

iowa-summitNine potential Republican presidential candidates were asked their opinions on various agricultural issues at the Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines on Saturday.

Comments made by at the event by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are still generating stories from major national news sources.

Over 270 journalists who attended the event, representing most if not all of the major news outlets nationwide, heard about some of the top issues for agriculture including trade, regulations, conservation, food safety, biotechnology, renewable fuels, and immigration as each taking candidate sat down on a stage with agribusiness entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter for about 20 minutes.

The main focus of the event was to get the potential candidates to take a stand on the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Six of the nine expressed at least conditional support, including Wisconsin Governor Walker who recently had been criticized by biofuel producers in his state for not taking a stand on the law. Three of the candidates – Cruz, Pataki, and Perry – came out firmly against the RFS, while at the same time saying they supported ethanol and other renewable fuels.

couser-cruzThe summit was organized with the support of America’s Renewable Future, a quasi-political campaign for the RFS introduced earlier this year. Co-chair Bill Couser, pictured here with Sen. Cruz, says their goal is to educate potential presidential candidates.

“Show them why we do this, how we do this, and say what do you think?” said Couser, an Iowa cattle producer and ethanol advocate. “I can say, let’s go look at a corn field, let’s go look at a feedlot, let’s go look at some windmills, let’s go look at Lincolnway Energy, and then let’s go to the DuPont plant right next door and I’ll show you what we’re doing with the whole plant and being sustainable.”

Couser says they plan to approach all potential presidential candidates individually and invite them to visit and learn more about agriculture and renewable energy, including Hillary Clinton. “Wouldn’t that be something if she showed up?” he said.

Listen to my interview with Bill at the recent National Ethanol Conference here: Interview with Bill Couser, America's Renewable Future Co-Chair

Leno Anti-Ethanol Rant Smells Like BO

leno-e85-corvetteThis picture from an April 2008 Popular Mechanics article written by former Tonight Show host Jay Leno shows him with a 2006 Corvette Z06 that he said “has a top speed of 208 mph and runs on a homegrown alternative to gasoline – cleaner burning E85 ethanol.”

In this interview with DomesticFuel in 2007, Leno talks about biodiesel specifically but all renewable fuels in general about being good for America and agriculture. “We try to support companies that make products here in America,” he said. “To me, it’s a great thing to see people no longer losing their farms because they can’t make a crop that’s viable anymore …you support the farmers, they watch my TV show, I buy their products.” 2007 Interview with Jay Leno on Renewable Fuels

Leno is a car enthusiast who has always supported renewable fuels, so his full-out attack monologue on ethanol this week in AutoWeek has to leave one wondering what inspired him to write it, since it has the distinctive smell of B.O. – that would be Big Oil.

Leno’s attack is not only blatantly false, but mean-spirited.

I just don’t see the need for ethanol. I understand the theory—these giant agri-business companies can process corn, add the resulting blend to gasoline and we’ll be using and importing less gasoline. But they say this diversion of the corn supply is negatively affecting food prices, and the ethanol-spiked gas we’re forced to buy is really awful.

The big growers of corn have sold us a bill of goods. Some people are making a lot of money because of ethanol. But as they divert production from food to fuel, food prices inevitably will rise. Now, if you don’t mind paying $10 for a tortilla …

Say it ain’t so, Leno. You seem like a basically nice guy we wouldn’t normally think would stoop to criticizing farmers. So, what gives?

Since the thrust of the article is contacting Congress to reform or eliminate the Renewable Fuel Standard, it’s a good guess that there is some big money behind it.

Syndicated car show host and technician Bobby Likis also thinks Leno’s article seems uncharacteristic. “I cannot believe “what Jay said” is “what Jay really believes.” His words smack of otherwise invested horse-whisperers who use personal agendas to sway vulnerable-for-whatever-reason people towards their way,” says Likis in an editorial for the E-xchange Blog refuting all of Leno’s claims.

I love the title to Bobby’s counter article. With Leno’s article titled “Can’t we Just Get Rid of Ethanol,” Bobby responded, “Can’t We Just Get Rid of Ethanol Ignorance?” Can’t we?

RFS for President!

The 2016 presidential campaign is starting to percolate and in Iowa the biofuels industry is making the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) their candidate.

americas-futureIowa Governor Terry Branstad last week announced a major new bi-partisan campaign called America’s Renewable Future that will promote the RFS to both candidates and caucus-goes for the 2016 Iowa Presidential caucuses.

“I’m very passionate about the Renewable Fuel Standard,” said Governor Branstad during a conference call to announce the effort. “It’s made a real difference for farm income and good jobs, reducing our dependency on foreign oil, improving the environment – so I’m really excited to see this strong, bi-partisan effort being made to educate people that come to Iowa and presidential candidates.”

Coordinating the effort will be Governor Branstad’s son Eric, a public affairs specialist and campaign operative. “We have partners coming in from all over the country and those partners have committed millions to fund this effort,” said Eric Branstad. “We are designing it to look like a presidential campaign and the RFS is our candidate.”

America’s Renewable Future is co-chaired by former Iowa State Representative Annette Sweeney, a Republican, and former state Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge, a Democrat, as well as Iowa renewable fuels industry leader Bill Couser. The effort “will wage a mulitimillion dollar, multi-platform effort” to educate presidential candidates about the benefits of the RFS and ask them to take a stand.

That effort kicked off last Friday with an ad in the Des Moines Register as potential Republican presidential candidates began to gather for the Iowa Freedom Summit.

Still, the RFS went largely unmentioned during the Saturday summit. Asked about the RFS in an interview with the Des Moines Register on Friday, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said he would continue his opposition to the law as “a matter of principle.”

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was the only one who showed up at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit on Tuesday, even though all potential candidates were invited, and he did show his support for the RFS, calling it “pro-environment, pro-competition and pro-American jobs.”

Gov. Branstad says Iowa is still an important state for a presidential candidate and the RFS is important to Iowa. “This is one of the battleground states that’s going to, I think, determine who’s going to be the next president of the United States,” said Branstad. “I think it would be a disadvantage in Iowa to not support the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Branstad said.

If It Looks Like Big Oil, and Walks Like Big Oil, It’s Probably…Big Oil

enviro impactsA story in today’s New York Times cites a new study by the World Resource Institute that attempts to discredit the significant and increasing contributions of biofuels to meet the world’s energy needs. On close inspection two things become abundantly clear.

First the so-called “new” study is nothing but the same old stuff trotted out by the anti-ethanol crowd nearly annually to see if any of the misinformation sticks to the wall. Take the wig and mustache off and it’s the same old pig.

Second, the former journalist in me always says to consider the veracity of the source to validate the data. In this case the World Resource Institute is funded by Shell and Statoil, two of the world’s largest oil companies. Always follow the money.

This fraudulent study has more holes than a colander but to address some of the most egregious point by point:

Ethanol production is not inefficient? Some of the best research to date from the University of Illinois Chicago shows you get a 40% net energy gain from ethanol production compared to all the energy used along the production chain from farm to gas pump.

The article begs the question why have so many invested billions of dollars in biofuels if they are a bad idea with no future? They do so because ethanol is a plug and play fuel source that meets the needs of our transportation fleet today. What makes it even more attractive is the bright future for biofuels. Automakers in Detroit make no secret of the fact that the next generation power plant for cars will be smaller, higher compression engines. And the best fuel for this future automotive technology is octane rich ethanol.

It also becomes abundantly clear that these think tank folks might want to meander outside the Washington, DC beltway and visit a farm. They question the percentage of the corn crop being used for ethanol today. It’s not how much of the crop we are using for biofuels but how large the crop has gotten. We have grown the largest 11 corn crops in history in the last 11 years. We currently have the largest carryout (supply of corn) ever so feedstock is abundant to meet all demand for corn.

And all of the above has been accomplished in the US on virtually the same acreage, and with less environmental impact. This is an amazing accomplishment that should make all Americans proud.

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