How the Renewable Fuel Standard has changed the corn industry, and what’s on the horizon for this key sector.
Since its adoption in 2005, no other piece of policy has changed the corn industry more than the Renewable Fuel Standard. Ethanol has become one of the most important markets for corn in that time.
But over the last couple of years, there are new developments that could be major boon for this crucial sector.
So in this episode, we're going to talk with a few ethanol experts to get their perspectives on how that market has developed, where it's at today, and where they’re hoping it will go in the future.
Joining us are agricultural economist Scott Irwin from the University of Illinois; Julie Busse, a member of the National Corn Growers Association ethanol team; and Bradley Schad, the CEO of the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council and Missouri Corn Growers Association.
They’ll provide some important context about ethanol’s history as a fuel, and also tell us how you can get involved with critical efforts to secure its future.
Visit NCGA.com/Octane to get involved yourself.
And you can learn more about Scott Irwin’s new book, “Back to the Futures: Crashing Dirt Bikes, Chasing Cows, and Unraveling the Mystery of Commodity Futures Markets,” by visiting this link:
Ethanol… it’s had a very large and sustained impact on the price of corn.
There is no greater bipartisan issue than making sure we have the ability to produce our energy needs here at home and make sure we’re protecting our country.
Hello, and welcome to the CobCast, Inside the Grind with the National Corn Growers Association. This is where leaders, growers, and stakeholders in the corn industry can turn for big-picture conversations about the state of the industry and its future.
From the fields of the Corn Belt to the D.C. Beltway, we're making sure that the growers who feed America have a say in the issues that are important to them, with key leaders who are shaping the future of agriculture.
So make sure you’re following this show in your favorite podcast app, and sign up for the National Corn Growers Association newsletter at NCGA.com.
I'm Dusty Weis and in this episode, one of the most important markets for corn is the ethanol industry. But over the last couple of years, there are new developments that could be major boon for this crucial sector. So we're going to talk with a few folks who think a lot about ethanol and get their perspectives on how that market has developed, where it's at today, and where they’re hoping it will go in the future.
We're going to be talking to agricultural economist Scott Irwin with the University of Illinois, Julie Busse, a member of the National Corn Growers Association ethanol team, and Bradley Schad, the CEO of the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council and Missouri Corn Growers Association.
So to think about where we hope the industry will go in the future, let's first take a step back and think about where it's been. Scott, you've studied commodity markets for a long time.
You know a great deal about how the ethanol industry has evolved over the past few decades. There at the University of Illinois for my old man who was an Illini himself, I'm obligated to chime in with a Go Illini. But why don't you tell us a little bit about your career and how you wound up in your position at the U of I.
Well, I grew up an Iowa farm boy and still have connections to our family farm in Iowa. Got fascinated with the grain and commodity markets in the big mid-70s boom and then started studying the markets in graduate school. Got a job at Ohio State.
And at the University of Illinois, I was very fortunate to follow in someone that a lot of people in the industry know, Tom Hieronymus's position here at the University of Illinois and a great mentor of mine.
And in simplest terms, ff you know, my career and my motivations, the best way I can describe it is I tell people, I do a lot of different things here at the University of Illinois. I was the leader of the farmdoc team for a long time. Write a lot about ethanol, biofuels and crop yields, all sorts of things. Do a lot of research, teach classes.
But the one thread that connects them all is you could say that I am fascinated by anything that affects the price of corn and soybeans. So that's kind of the thread that connects my work. And so that makes sense why I got so interested in ethanol really starting about 2007, 2008 as the ethanol boom was really taking off.
That's when my interest in it really started taking off because I wanted to know why we were building all these ethanol plants and what was it going to do to the price of corn.
Well, and what a perfect coincidence for us too, because as NCGA staff, as growers, we're also very fascinated by the price of corn. But I'd love to sort of jump in the time machine with you here and go back 20 years.
Biofuels and demand driven by the Renewable Fuel Standard has been one of the most important things to happen to the corn industry in that time. And so if we jump back to the early 2000s, can you provide us a little bit of a background on how the RFS is structured and what it's set up to do?
Sure. In its most basic form, it's a set of annual volume standards for the entire United States in terms of different categories of biofuels that must be blended into the transportation fuel supply of the United States. So it says you need to use, say, 15 billion gallons of ethanol in this year. It's that simple.
What's really interesting is the RFS, those standards do not ever go away until the US Congress and the president would sign a law that took the RFS off the books. So we will have those annual mandated volumes forever until it's taken off the books.
So that's what the volumes are and how does that work in practical terms? Well, under the law, there are entities called “obligated parties.” They're basically crude oil refiners, are the obligated parties under the RFS. And it's their responsibility under the law, they are legally obligated to demonstrate compliance with those volume mandates.
And that's essentially the basics of how the RFS works.
Well, and you hit on a really important key part there because having the standard is one thing, but enforcing the standard is something completely different. And that's where these things called renewable identification numbers or RINs come into play.
It's essentially, as I understand it, a means of accounting for those refiners to demonstrate that they are meeting their obligations. So can you help us understand RINs and why those are important and how they work?
Well, if you're going to mandate volumes of biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel and renewable diesel, you have to have a way to track those volumes.
And the original RFS statutes specified a system, which is RINs for short, whereby whenever a batch of ethanol is produced in the United States or even imported, it gets assigned a RIN number. It's actually a 38 digit identifier and it is assigned to every batch of biofuels that's produced.
And that number, think of it like a certificate that travels along with the biofuel as it moves through the supply chain from the ethanol producer to the ultimate gasoline driver who fills up their tank at the gas pump.
And what the system is designed so that when, say, ethanol is blended with petroleum gasoline and then sold at the pump, the refiner can say that RIN is now detachable from the fuel and they can now take that certificate and turn it in to the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, to say, yay, look, for that batch of biofuels, it was blended into the transportation fuel supply just like the law says it's supposed to.
So the RIN is the mechanism that demonstrates compliance that the physical biofuel is actually used at the retail level. So that's what the RIN is. The really interesting and unique feature of the RINs is it was created where these are negotiable and traded instruments.
So that means that let's say you have refiner A who, for whatever reason, blended more biofuels in a given year than their particular obligation as a part of the national volume standards. And then you've got refiner B, who for whatever reason didn't quite blend enough ethanol this year.
Refiner B can just buy the excess RIN certificates from refiner A and turn those in to demonstrate because as far as the standards are concerned it doesn't matter who did the blending as long as the overall amount of ethanol blended when you add up all the certificates that are turned in equal the standard.
As a country, we met our obligations collectively. And so that's essentially good enough. And it sort of creates a secondary market like you've seen with carbon credits being another example here, where people who have more RINs than they need can sell them off and trade in them. And how does all of that create value for the growers at the end of the day, would you say?
Well, the RINs themselves don't really create the value. They represent the value of the standards themselves. So there's an economic interpretation of the price of the RINs that are traded in the secondary market, of which I'm sure we don't have the time or the interest to get into those nuances.
I have a new book out called Back to the Futures and I have an entire chapter related to RINs and, there's even people on Twitter. One of my best Twitter followers is a guy named Rini the Gopher, some unknown fuel energy trader. I have a picture of the Gopher that he takes around with him in my book. So if you're interested in all that, you can check that out. Funny how these things work.
There's a whole world of characters in this landscape that I wasn't even aware of here, Scott.
Absolutely. But more seriously the mandates and particularly ethanol feeding back into the price of corn, it's had a very large and sustained impact on the price of corn.
We essentially, after 2006, almost doubled the price of corn on average. And there's a big argument among agricultural economists about, okay, exactly how much of that should we attribute to the RFS and the ethanol mandates?
But, I’m convinced that it's at least a third to a half of that increase in the average price that we've seen and so that makes a tremendous difference at the grower level certainly does you know on our farms and the price of corn and if the price of corn goes up the price of soybeans we'll have to follow as well so it's like I like to say it's a very enviable safety net on the demand for biofuels and that has to have a price impact.
It's a good spot to be in and certainly even 20 years later here, growers are certainly glad to have that safety net there. Thank you for that background, Scott. That's been really helpful to sort of set the stage for the next part of the conversation here. And we were planning this podcast episode during the holidays here.
And so I started in my head referring to it as the ghosts of ethanol past, ethanol present and ethanol future. And so I think it's time to bring in our ghosts of ethanol present and future here Julie Busse, NCGA played a big role getting the RFS passed way back when.
Can you tell me what sort of work NCGA has done in the years since then to make sure that ethanol markets remain a vital market for corn growers?
Yeah, Dusty, that's a great question. And honestly, there's a couple of different ways that I could answer that question. So obviously there's the policy side. Scott touched on that a little bit, but there's also the market development side and what we're doing in the countryside and then the communications piece of all this too to answer your question. So briefly, let me touch on the policy side, but let me say I am not the policy expert. I am definitely the market development side of the equation at NCGA.
But certainly there's been a lot that has happened in the six years in my time. And so, to say that we've been very busy is an understatement. So I'm just going to touch on a few of the policy things, but knowing there's a lot more that we just don't have time to get to today.
So obviously E-15 year round, that is something that we have been talking about a lot lately. So we had it at one time and then we didn't have E-15 again year round. The past couple of years, we've had to go through the emergency waiver process over the summer months to allow the sale of E-15.
And even more recently, eight Midwest governors have been seeking a permanent waiver for their states to sell E-15 year round. In fact, just before Christmas, the EPA did advance that request to the Office of Management and Budget. So that's progressing and hopefully we'll have an answer here in the next just two to three months on that.
In the past, obviously another thing that we've talked a lot about and heard a lot about has been small refinery exemptions, SREs. And having to defend the RFS is something that we've certainly continued to watch closely and focus on.
And you know, Scott touched on that a little bit in his remarks too. Ensuring that the RFS volumes are strong and that blending requirements are met have been very, very important to NCGA. Something that we're going to touch on here in a little bit, but I have to bring this up, is you know, NCGA and with the support of our state partners have been working the past few years on the Next Generation Fuels Act.
Again, I'm not going to touch on that right now because I know going to get there, but that is our top legislative priority for NCGA.
And then recently three, four months ago, you've probably heard a lot about the proposed fuel economy standards from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that unfortunately was very focused on electrification and didn't really take into account the role that corn ethanol can play in things like energy security and the environmental benefits for the transportation sector.
So those are just a few of the things on the policy side. We could do an entire podcast series, but like Scott said, I'm not sure anyone wants that right now. So let me move on a little bit to some of the things that we've been doing from a market development and market saturation perspective from NCGA.
So one of our signature programs that we've been doing over the past three to four years is what we call our fuel dispenser infrastructure program or FDI.
So this program is aimed at making sure we're expanding access in the countryside and all over to future mid-level blends of ethanol through pump infrastructure. So we've actually been working with two of the largest pump manufacturers who make up 98% of market share on producing and selling pumps that are certified to deliver up to 25% and 40% ethanol.
To date, NCGA and our state partners have directly funded the production and sale, of over 82,000 fueling dispensers in North America that are certified up to E25 and E40. This is certainly a program that we see as a success that we're going to continue in the future.
And hopefully in the next few months, we've got some exciting more good news to share on that program.
Another area real quick, I want to touch on too, that NCGA and the ethanol action team has been a part of, is we've been very supportive of USDA's Higher Blends Infrastructure Incentive Program, or HBIP, as you might have heard it called.
Through the Inflation Reduction Act, actually USDA invested $500 million to the HBIP program, which is awesome. That program is meant to increase the sales and use of higher ethanol blends by expanding the infrastructure to do that.
Now, one of the things that we've been doing in partnership with the Renewable Fuels Association is application assistance for retailers. One of the things that we have heard consistently is that it's really hard for your smaller retailers to go through this many, many page application process. And there had been issues with, you know, some getting halfway, three quarters, almost 90% of the way done and just not being able to finish the process.
So partnering with RFA, we actually helped fund a program that they did called HBIP University, which kind of helps walk retailers through part of that application process so they can get through some of it on their own before RFA comes in and helps with technical assistance. Through our support of RFA's technical assistance, actually $56 million in grants has been awarded in just FY23.
And RFA has had a hundred percent success rate for those retailers who have received the grant assistance from RFA. So that has been another great program to make sure we're getting infrastructure in the marketplace.
And then finally, the last program I'll touch on very briefly that is certainly near and dear to my heart for anyone who knows me. My background is communications and radio. That is my passion. That's what I that's what I've done for most of my career until I started this role a year ago with NCGA.
But we started a Washington DC ethanol education campaign that is really working to build our base of ethanol supporters through communications efforts in Washington DC. So this has been really a multi-pronged approach of research and focus groups and then paid and earned media. You know, we just talked about some of the policy issues.
They're really complicated and sometimes being able to step back and just share the general benefits of corn ethanol whether it's the environmental, the economic, the consumer choice at the pump, saving money at the pump. Trying to share those basic messages with members of Congress and their staff and maybe the career EPA person, just trying to share why ethanol should be a part of the conversation and why we should be leaning on ethanol as we move into the energy future.
So we've got a lot of success from that campaign over the past year and I'm really excited to continue that campaign in the future. Just a few quick stats, you know, we've been able to secure op-ed statements in Fox Business, RealClearEnergy, The Washington Examiner, Chicago Sun-Times, for instance.
We did a Politico piece that had 7 million impressions and over 8,000 page views. One of the other things too that's been kind of fun is, you know, when some of those big events like the State of the Union and Congress coming back into town, we're actually geo-targeting those areas and collecting device IDs so that we can later target people with our message.
So it's a program that I'm excited to continue about in 2024 and certainly cannot, that program wouldn't have been a success if it weren't for a partnership with our state partners. They have been a very integral piece of that campaign and they're the reasons why this campaign started to begin with; to continue to grow demand and make sure that we have a strong marketplace for ethanol moving forward.
It's really cool to hear, Julie, about some of the new communications technologies that you're leveraging to make this initiative work and really using it in unique ways as well to sort of get the message out there.
And say, if you're playing along at home here, make sure to pull out your Webster's dictionary and turn it to the page for I right now, where you're going to find irons in the fire and a picture of Julie and the entire NCGA ethanol team here…
But I want to go to Bradley Schad next year from the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council and the Missouri Corn Growers Association, because Julie, you hinted at it a little bit, but the big piece of legislation that NCGA is working on nationally in Washington is the Next Generation Fuels Act. So Bradley, what can you tell us about that and where we're at?
Well, as you mentioned, the Next Generation Fuels Act, it is a big piece of legislation. It does a lot for the industry. It is the sole piece of legislation that NCGA and the state partners have been working on. The Next Generation Fuels Act modernizes our nation's fuel supply to use a high octane, low carbon fuel. It cuts cost, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, improves air quality and increases fuel efficiency.
What it ultimately does is it requires a vapor pressure parity for all ethanol blends as you go up. It ensures greenhouse gas reductions. It revises the calculation for dual fuel vehicles. Increases octane in the fuel. Ensures a role for ethanol in the future. Allows the autos to manufacture the engines rather than being required, as Julie talked about earlier, this administration, what they have put forward on requiring electric vehicles.
This gives the autos the ability to produce internal combustion engines that consumers want. And that's going to go back to one thing that Julie left out, the benefits of ethanol. It’s energy security. I would be remiss to not talk about going back to my start in the ethanol industry, and that was actually before I had a job with the Corn Growers Association. It was whenever I was in college, ethanol was cheaper.
It was in 2004, 2005, driving my vehicle to college, ethanol was a dollar a gallon cheaper. And so being from the Show Me State, I started blending my own and saw all the misnomers out there, the untruth facts that the oil industry was putting out there was untrue.
Because I'm from the Show Me State, I had to try it myself and ran on higher blends in my 2000 F-150 for many miles and never had any issues whatsoever. And so that's kind of how I got my start in dispelling the myths that are out there about ethanol.
Because there was actually a sign there that said who would you rather buy your gas from you know your local farmer or someone across the globe and so it got me to thinking and that's whenever I started my journey promoting ethanol.
I gotta ask, Bradley, tell me about this blending operation. Did you set this up in the garage, in the shed out back? Where are you blending your own gas?
No, no I just went to the pump the local retailer had E85 and E10 and so I'd fill up with E10 about half the way and then pull up to the E85 pump and fill up the rest of the way and I had to show myself that ethanol wasn't harmful to my engine There's been all kinds of things out there that said that it would and I had to prove to myself that hey it's quite alright to use it because it's safe.
It comes from a renewable resource and we can produce jobs and have cleaner air here at home. It's better for my engine and had less carbon emissions coming out the tailpipe.
Well, and being a young man at the time in college, I imagine you didn't mind saving that money that you saved either.
Absolutely, and you know we've kind of come full circle now to where energy security is big again.
You know, right now with this administration pushing for EVs, we get a majority of our lithium and battery products from a country that doesn't necessarily like us.
And so we need to be careful on how we do that and how we set our policies going forward to make sure that we're still providing the opportunity to get our energy needs here from the United States and from home. Because we don't want to be having issues and supply issues of getting our products here.
So the Next Generation Fuels Act, essentially it requires higher octane fuels at the gas pump, which is good for anyone who drives a car, and it's certainly a role that corn ethanol can fill. It requires lower carbon and emissions, which is good for everybody, basically. But I'm dying to know, Scott, if you don't mind my asking, what would the Next Generation Fuels Act do for farmers? Have we studied that?
I have not studied that personally, but I don't think that it's probably mysterious. It would definitely be good for farmers and the price of corn. It would be, in my opinion, just another way of increasing the demand for corn ethanol.
You're just basically upping the standards, but you're doing it in a different way. As I understand it, you're essentially creating an octane standard for fuel. And since corn ethanol is one of the cheapest sources of octane, that's the way to understand it.
And it sounds like a win-win, a great opportunity for corn growers and ethanol producers as well. So Bradley, what's been happening with that legislation lately? Where are we at?
Well, we've been working hard with our partners at NCGA and all of our other states. But I do want to clarify, this technically isn't a mandate. What it does is it breaks down the barriers and breaks down the building blocks that the oil industry has put up for the last hundred years and allows the autos to be able to produce engines to use ethanol in the future.
And so they can produce octane in other ways. Yes, there's a carve out for the amount that we use, but and it's the cheapest source also so it does provide the opportunity to sell more ethanol. But we've been working together with NCGA and all of our other state partners to get a growing consensus of legislators continuously working to make sure that they're educated on the issue and how important it is to pass legislation that would do that. That would increase our octane standards for all the reasons that we mentioned earlier.
So we're also working on getting partners, businesses that support the Next Generation Fuels Act and support ethanol out there. We've got individual retailers that have jumped on board saying that we've got to have this. An electric vehicle doesn't work out in rural Missouri. They’re not going to come to a small mom and pop retail location and fill up their electric vehicle one, because they're not going to have it, but two, they're not going to want to go into a convenience store that doesn't have something to do for 30 or 40 minutes.
And so we're getting more and more support all the time from interesting partners. We’ve got it from our feed retailers showing that electric vehicles aren't going to work for their farmers as well. So they're jumping on board, whether it be seed dealers, ag industry, across the board, we're just seeing more and more support and we're going out and spreading the message, as Julie said, in all these different ways to make sure that people understand the importance and how detrimental it will be if we don't get something passed to break down the barriers that allow for higher blends of ethanol.
Yeah, and I'll jump in for just a minute if I can to kind of follow up on that. So one of the figures that we've, you know, been using is that a high octane, low carbon standard like the Next Generation Fuels Act would increase ethanol usage by about 5 billion gallons, which equates to about 1.8 billion bushels of corn. So from a demand perspective, you know, that's why we're so interested in the Next Generation Fuels Act and getting something like this in the marketplace.
I'll say, you know, to Bradley's point, I think one of the great things that has been about this year and working on this project is, is that coordination with our state association partners and NCGA. So one of the things that we did back in April, we wanted to be sure that we were all working together on this.
And I think one of the great things, you know, Missouri is a great example of this, Kansas, Illinois. Them having some of those conversations on the local level has actually opened the door for us to approach some national organizations that the door wasn't maybe necessarily open to before.
So that has been a good part of this process and we've got about 20 to 25 national organizations signed on in support of NGFA and it's something that we're certainly still focused on. We want to continue to expand and grow the tent of partners who are willing to help us promote this piece of legislation.
But also as we go into 2024, one of our focuses is going to be getting back into members of Congress and seeing how many more co-sponsors we can get signed on to this legislation. So, certainly have a lot of balls in the air right now with this piece of legislation and it's literally been an all hands on deck approach. And I have to credit our state partners for a lot of that because they've been great working with us on moving this forward.
So I'm looking forward to what this next year has to offer. I know it's going to be tough. We have a presidential election and you know how that can be. But I think that if we continue to work together, I think we're going to be able to keep moving and keep the momentum going.
To your point, Julie, I flipped the calendar over the other week and I went, oh, it's an election year again. And that can be either a really bad time to get legislation passed, or it can be a really good time. And particularly when you've got legislators who are going out to their home districts and maybe meeting some people that they haven't met with for a while, legislators like to bring home good news when they're running for reelection. And this certainly seems like a slam dunk piece of good news for farm country out there.
But it's worth pointing out as well that this has bipartisan sponsorship in both the Senate and the House. How is that process of getting sponsors coming along?
We're getting there. I think one of the things, you know, that we're really focused on, and as I talk about getting more people signed on this next year, is that we're really kind of doing a relationship mapping process. So, like, you know, Bradley's got members of his delegation signed on to NGFA. So who does that person know that might be friends in another state or on a different committee of jurisdiction that we can get signed on?
So that's a little bit of, you know, from to your point, Dusty, one of the routes we're going to try to take this year.
Well, and to you Bradley, I guess, why is it so important for this to be bipartisan?
Well, because it's a bipartisan issue.
Whenever you look at energy security, there is no greater bipartisan issue of making sure that we have the ability to produce our energy needs here at home and make sure we're protecting our country. I mean, that's ultimately what the Constitution talked about is protecting its citizens. And that's what we've got to do is making sure that we can fuel our vehicles and still be able to operate in a situation that may not be good for the country.
So the issue of energy security, there's no bigger issue than to be bipartisan on that. But on top of it you've got rural Democrats, you got rural Republicans, and we've got one representative in the city that sees that it's an issue for the people in their city that can't afford an electric vehicle, but yet he wants to have cleaner air.
So that's how we're getting both sides on board. On the rural side it's helping agriculture out, as Scott talked about, helping increase corn grind and so those are all things that people can get around on both sides of the aisle and so that's why it's important to have both sides of the aisle working together.
Because ultimately doesn't matter who's in the presidency at the time that we get this past Congress, we've got to have them sign on as well so it's got a that's how we get things done that's how the RFS was passed and that's how we we've got to work on this issue as well.
Well, and they like to say that democracy is not a spectator sport. So if I'm a grower, if I'm a concerned citizen, if I'm a part of one of these groups out there and I'm sitting here thinking, you know what? Next Generation Fuels Act sounds like a pretty good idea, what can I do to get involved and help get this important legislation passed?
Contact your congressman, senators, get onto NCGA. We've got an action website that you can get on and get involved, but just talk to your legislators, talk to your local retailers, say, hey, do you support this? Why don't you? We've got to have liquid fuel in the future.
I'm driving a liquid fuel vehicle, and whether that's a hybrid vehicle or just a regular internal combustion engine, they’ve got to have that fuel into the future as we move forward and we all need cleaner air. So talk to everybody that you know of how important this legislation is and to help us get it passed.
To follow up on Bradley's point, obviously a lot of our state associations have great information on their websites about the Next Generation Fuels Act, but also, you know, shameless website plug. If you go to NCGA.com/Octane, that is another place with a lot of materials that outline some of the stuff that we've talked about today.
Well, and we'll certainly drop a link to that in the episode description for the podcast as well. But ton of good information here from three very knowledgeable people, and we appreciate you all taking the time to share it.
We'll keep our listeners updated as this progresses. But Scott Erwin from the University of Illinois, Bradley Shad from the Missouri Corn Growers Association, and Julie Bussey from the National.
Thank you all so much for joining us on this episode of the CobCast.
Thank you very much.
And thank YOU for listening. We hope you’ll join us again next month for another episode of the Cobcast: Inside the Grind with the National Corn Growers Association.
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The Cobcast is brought to you by the National Corn Growers Association, with editing by Matt Covarrubias. And it’s produced by Podcamp Media, branded podcast production for businesses. PodcampMedia.com.
For the National Corn Growers Association, thanks for listening, I'm Dusty Weis.