President Donald Trump, looking to shore up support in the Farm Belt during a tight race for re-election, is taking steps to help producers of corn-based ethanol using a list of policy goals that a group of Midwest senators discussed with him a year ago, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
On Sept. 12, 2019, Trump met with the senators, who were frustrated by the administration's management of U.S. biofuels policy. They argued that the Environmental Protection Agency had been helping the oil industry at the expense of farmers dependent on ethanol sales, and presented him with a list of ways he could fix the problem, according to five sources familiar with the matter.
Following that meeting, Trump announced progress had been made on a biofuel reform package, but gave no details. "I think we had a great meeting on ethanol for the farmers," Trump told reporters at the White House. "Let's see what happens."
A year later, Trump and his administration have begun chipping away at the industry's wish list, using the meeting as a blueprint to court farmers in Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest, according to sources.
Trump is battling former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to stay in office.
The 2019 meeting, which included Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst from Iowa and John Thune and Mike Rounds from South Dakota, produced a list of 11 policy items, according to one of the sources and a memo from the meeting reviewed by Reuters.
They included ratcheting down the EPA's biofuel waiver program exempting refineries from adding ethanol to their gasoline; setting higher biofuel blending volume requirements for 2020; expanding the market for higher ethanol blends of gasoline called E15; exploring a national biofuels infrastructure program; and addressing ethanol and biodiesel trade issues, particularly with Brazil, according to the memo — the details of which have not previously been published.
In recent weeks, Trump has moved on some of these goals, using them as a battle plan for his election strategy in the Midwest, according to two sources.
The White House and the EPA, which regulates compliance with biofuel requirements, did not comment for this story.
First, the EPA denied scores of retroactive small oil-refinery waivers that would have allowed more than a dozen plants to continue seeking exemptions from RFS obligations each year. The biofuels industry saw the move as a step toward winding down the controversial waiver program, a key point of discussion during the 2019 meeting.
Trump also urged Brazil to continue its policy of not imposing tariffs on imported ethanol, asking Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's government to eliminate any levies. Brazil since announced it will extend a tariff-free import program for biofuels until after the election.
Then on Sept. 12, exactly one year after the meeting with senators, Trump tweeted he would allow states to permit fuel retailers to use their current pumps to sell E15 gasoline instead of installing new equipment, a move that could help lift ethanol sales quickly.
With the election looming, Trump had been under increasing pressure from within his campaign to please agriculture interests, and Midwest lawmakers and agricultural trade associations had been reminding Trump of his slow action on the 2019 wish list.
Biden's campaign and Senate Democrats had noticed farmers' frustration with Trump and had attacked him for not holding to his commitments.
Last week, a group of Iowa farmers sent a letter to Grassley and Ernst demanding they release details from the 2019 meeting. The group's aim is to spotlight how Trump has fallen short on agricultural issues, its website said.
Minnesota Farm Bureau officials recently had a 40-minute virtual conversation with Trump, in which they pressed him on ethanol.