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Franken urges more letters to EPA, White House

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.

Eunie Biel, a Minnesota Farmers Union board member was there, to share a letter she had written to the EPA describing the 150-cow dairy farm that she and her husband, Robert, run in Harmony, Minnesota. They feed distillers' grains to their cows and have invested in a local ethanol plant.

And Tim Gerlach, Minnesota Corn Growers' executive director, told Franken that 7,000 of his group's members have written EPA.

Franken encouraged more letters, and letters like those from the Biel family that describe their farm.

"You need to say I'm a corn grower, and this means a lot to our economy in Minnesota," Franken said. "It really means something if you have your handwriting on there, telling your story."

The deadline for EPA to take comments on its proposed rule is January 28. Franken insisted that the more letters sent to the EPA and the White House, the better chance for a final rule that's more favorable.

"It isn't like Gina McCarthy is going to take 60,000 letters to bed at night," he added. But someone on her staff will read them, he said. And even the president reads 10 letters from Americans each night. Franken also suggested using email. It's faster than paper letters, since it doesn't have to be screened for anthrax.

EPA's decision to trim almost 3 billion gallons of biofuels from the target of 18.15 billions gallons set by a 2007 energy law worries Franken, who told Agriculture.com in an interview later that it will discourage investment in advanced biofuels. Franken is a strong supporter of cellulosic ethanol, and with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) he introduced language for the new farm bill that will provide support for such advanced biofuels. He also joined 28 senators who wrote EPA leader McCarthy to oppose freezing the biodiesel mandate at 1.7 billion gallons next year, well below the industry's current production.

If EPA sticks with its smaller blending targets for 2013, "then you're going to disincentivize the kind of capital you need to do the research of scaling up," Franken said.

When asked if sending letters to EPA will mean much when the agency's decisions are supposed to be based on science, Franken suggested that decision to roll back the RFS wasn't science based. "The acknowledgment by EPA is that this [blending biofuels] make sense environmentally -- and they are the environmental agency," he said.

"There's always politics in this stuff," he said of the decision to reduce the mandate. "When people write letters, it makes a difference."

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