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Franken urges more letters to EPA, White House

DANIEL LOOKER 01/19/2014 @ 6:14pm Business Editor

When Senator Al Franken (D-MN) walked into the Four Daughters Vineyard & Winery near Spring Valley, Minnesota, Saturday afternoon, he was the only one wearing a suit. He told some 30 farmers waiting for him that he had just come from a memorial service in Plainview and joked that he was wearing "rural business casual."

The one-time Saturday Night Live comedian hasn't lost his sense of humor, but his mood these days is one of frustration. Franken is among a bipartisan group of Senators trying to convince the EPA and the White House that a proposed rule to trim ethanol and biodiesel blending mandates in the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014 is a mistake.

Franken brought up the subject when a group of Democrats met with President Barack Obama last Wednesday.

"I told him, he's from Illinois, a state that has a big corn crop, that the RFS rules are going in the wrong direction," Franken told the group gathered at one end of the vineyard's wine-tasting room. "This is exactly the wrong time to send the message we're not going to extend the RFS for ethanol and biodiesel."

Franken is also pointing out that ethanol is a greener fuel with a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline.

"I made the argument to the president that you're never going to have an ethanol spill in the Gulf," he recounted, drawing laughter from the farmers.

Franken didn't share Obama's response, but during his discussion with the farmers, he said that he has also talked to the president's new senior adviser, John Podesta.

"Podesta gets it. He's going to be inside pressing on that," Franken said.

Franken was also one of 16 Democrats and Republicans from the Senate who met with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in mid-December to explain that the EPA's proposal to trim the RFS drastically ignores the intent of the law.

Franken said on Saturday that McCarthy agrees that biofuels produce fewer greenhouse gases than fuels from petroleum.

"What was weird about the meeting with Gina McCarthy -- she acknowledged all of our points. You kind of wonder where this decision is being made," Franken said.

EPA justifies its decision by citing the so-called blend wall, the lack of capacity to blend more than about 10% of motor fuel with ethanol.

Franken doesn't accept that.

"The infrastructure isn't there for ethanol because the franchisees are getting punished for putting in a blender pump," said Franken. "This is incredibly frustrating."

Bruce Peterson, a Northfield, Minnesota, farmer and vice president of the Minnesota Corn Growers, told Peterson that there are a lot of farmer-owned co-ops and independent gas stations that would like to begin selling higher ethanol blends like E15 (15% ethanol), but they're concerned about EPA's lowered RFS. "This certainly doesn't give them the confidence to move forward and make that switch," Peterson told Franken.

The Corn Growers organized the meeting, which also drew other farm leaders, including Dodge County Farm Bureau President Jim Checkel and another farm bureau member, Kathy King, who is from a farm north of Rochester, and Al Hein, Denny King, and several other farmers on the board of the POET ethanol plant at nearby Preston, Minnesota.

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