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Successful Minnesota Biofuels Industry Awaits Trump

  • Monday, 23 January 2017 10:36

Duluth News Tribune

January 21, 2017

By Don Davis and Maureen McMullen

ST. PAUL — Minnesota's plant-based fuel industries of ethanol and biodiesel are success stories, but their future depends on the new Trump administration.

"We are a little nervous," Assistant Commissioner Andrea Vaubel of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture said, not knowing the future U.S. agriculture secretary's biofuels attitude.

Vaubel has reason to be nervous. Leading up to Trump's Friday inauguration, based on reporting from national media with access to his inner circle.

Minnesota officials say they know little about former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, whom Trump nominated as U.S. secretary of agriculture, about his stance on ethanol.

Two other Cabinet nominees who would be involved in biofuel decisions have anti-biofuel histories.

The questions come at a time when the Minnesota biofuels industry is mature and doing well.

Tim Rudnicki, executive director of the Minnesota Biofuels Association, described biofuel as "apolitical."

"It’s about people, the environment and the economy and really about wins for everybody," he said.

The biofuel industry pumps $6 billion into the state economy annually.

The state was the first to require that all gasoline include 10 percent corn-based ethanol, helping spur the construction of 20 ethanol plants, providing corn farmers a lucrative new market. More than a billion gallons of ethanol come out of the plants each year.

Minnesota has the country's most pumps for E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that can be used in "flex fuel" capable vehicles.

Minnesota legislators voted to require 2 percent biodiesel — made from soybeans, animal fat, used cooking oil and other oil products — in most diesel sold in Minnesota in 2002. That rose to 5 percent four years later and 10 percent in 2012.

Three state commissioners must decide later this year if 20 percent biodiesel will be required May 1, 2018.

Chairman Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, of the state House Agriculture Policy Committee said that early problems with biodiesel gelling and causing other problems, mostly in cold weather, largely have disappeared.

"We did go through some growing pains," Anderson said, adding that "I have not heard many complaints the last few years."

As to ethanol, Anderson said, one of the major factors people should know is "has helped clean up the air. We sometimes forget that."

A 2015 study from the University of Illinois in Chicago determined the use of E15, a gasoline mixture with 15 percent ethanol, would eliminate 385,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. This, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculations, would have the same result of eliminating more than 75,000 passenger vehicles from Minnesota's roads.

Most biofuel programs operate at the mercy of the federal government
In many cases, federal agencies must approve higher biofuel use. In other situations, the state uses federal money to help support biofuels.

When Trump campaigned in Iowa, the country's top ethanol producer, he usually delivered the same line: "I love ethanol."

At one Iowa stop, he added: "You’re going to get a really fair shake from me."

However, he provided few details and his inner circle raises questions about what his intentions are with ethanol.

"Billionaire Carl Icahn, a special adviser to Donald Trump and a skeptic of the U.S. ethanol mandate, said there are others on the president-elect’s team who have even deeper criticisms of the program," Bloomberg News reported in late December.

Many of Trump's top advisors, including Icahn, are involved in petroleum production, and may see biofuels as competition.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, key to deciding the percentage of biofuel that goes into fuel. He is described as an ethanol opponent, but some Midwesterners have been assured Trump told him to back ethanol.

A December survey of 3,000 Midwestern Trump voters found that 88 percent believe ethanol is important to create American jobs, and 85 percent believe it is important for U.S. energy security.

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