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Q&A: Emily Skor, Growth Energy CEO

CEO of Growth Energy: “The truth is, most consumers don’t know about ethanol.”

Emily Skor is on a mission to educate consumers about the benefits of plant-based fuel. The CEO of Growth Energy, the U.S. trade industry association for ethanol producers, is sounding the call for the lower cost fuel in a time of rising gas prices. Research shows that consumers don’t “get” ethanol – to most consumers, she says, it’s just an ingredient in gasoline.

Skor is also competing with Big Oil for a larger share of the gas tank. It’s an odd relationship, since the oil industry is both a customer and the ethanol industry’s biggest adversary. Skor shared her thoughts recently with Successful Farming. 

SF: Ethanol has been through battle after battle over the past four years. What are the top priorities for Growth Energy?

ES: We’ve got three, really. All of our work ladders into these three. First, restore certainty to the Renewable Fuel Standard. This is the bedrock of our ability to compete and have access to the consumer. Second, continue to eliminate barriers to higher blends of low-carbon ethanol. That’s getting more E-15 into the marketplace. Third, utilizing biofuels as a low-cost pathway to achieve our climate goals. That’s making sure that all of the modeling, the incentives, and the performance standards recognize our full climate benefits and environmental profile. 

SF: What do you mean by full climate benefits?

ES: A report in January 2021 said, essentially, we’ve got these ambitious climate goals of net zero emissions by 2050, and we need biofuels to help get there. A big part of our conversation with policymakers is we’ve got ambitious climate goals. We know that we are moving into a low-carbon economy, and we’re going to need biofuels to be able to achieve our climate goals. We can be used in today’s cars, with today’s infrastructure, and we’re affordable for all communities. Our advantage over petroleum continues to grow. We’re just under a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, relative to gasoline. USDA’s own analysis says we could get to up to 70% in terms of that carbon advantage by the end of this year. As an industry, we’re driving toward net zero – that is within reach for us.

SF: What was your reaction to the recent National Wildlife Fund report that said ethanol has a larger carbon footprint than petroleum?

ES: It’s really frustrating and unfortunate that the report came out. First of all, it’s funded by a group that has a very established anti-ethanol bias. At the end of the day, it’s one study with unorthodox methodology, cherry-picking the data, and leading to erroneous conclusions – really, it’s kind of untethered from reality. Now, you juxtapose that against where the consensus of the scientific community is: that ethanol is absolutely less carbon intensive than gasoline, and that advantage continues to grow.

SF: Do consumers “get” the benefits of ethanol?

ES: The truth is, most consumers don’t know about ethanol. It’s an ingredient in their gasoline, and putting fuel in the gas tank is something that people want to pay as little attention to as they need to. They don’t know ethanol is a 46% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; that it’s affordable; that E-15 – a higher blend – is compatible with 96% of the cars on the road. It’s just not something that they needed to pay attention to. Because most fuel is blended with 10% ethanol, more consumers now have access to E-15 – a new choice at the gas station. It’s more important for us to introduce them to this choice and show why this is good for them.

SF: Describe your target consumer.

ES: We’ve done a lot of research to understand who would actually change their fuel choice if they had more information. It’s a millennial eco-conscious female. She’s willing to take a few extra steps to make small changes that are better for the environment. She’s looking for some simple changes. She wants to do something that’s good for the environment, and she’s willing to change fuel in order to support those values. Our message for her is, “A simple change, changes everything.” It’s cleaner burning, cleaner emissions, it’s good for the engine, and it’s actually good for your pocketbook at the same time.

SF: Is “Big Oil” a friend or foe?

ES: It’s an interesting question. Big Oil is actually a customer for ethanol. I get a lot of people asking me, why aren’t liquid fuels working together as we look at the continued introduction of electric vehicles into our national fleet? Why aren’t oil and ethanol doing more together? The truth is that our biggest adversary actively working every single day to block consumer access to higher blends of ethanol is the petroleum industry. They’ve got a lot of resources to do it. They’re doing it at the state level, and they’re doing it at the federal level. 

It’s the oil industry that actually sued to deny consumer access to E-15 in the summer months. They sued EPA in the courts, and won last year. The Trump administration legalized E-15 year-round in 2019. So, for three summers consumers have had access to E-15. This summer, they won’t because the oil industry sued in court to deny access to that fuel. It’s about competing for a share of the gas tank. They continue to be really our biggest adversary.

SF: Is the announcement of a deadline for reaching a settlement on RVOs a big win?

ES: That’s exciting. EPA would need to finalize the blending obligations for 2021 and 2022 no later than June 3 of this year. So that’s kind of a backstop. That’s really important because we just need certainty, we need clarity. This helps ensure that EPA is going to get the Renewable Volume Obligations out as quickly as possible.

SF: What is your ethanol message to farmers?

ES: My No. 1 message to farmers is that biofuels is the avenue to bring agriculture into the national climate strategy. My members are able to command a premium for their increasingly lower-carbon fuel in markets like California and Oregon – and even abroad. Where there is a low-carbon market, we can pass that premium onto our growers. That’s a conversation that we want to have with agriculture: How biofuels can help incentivize continued innovation in sustainable farming. 

Another message is that biofuel is the second-largest market for U.S. corn. Making sure that we have a strong biofuels market, and that we continue to seek growth, that’s going to be good for agriculture. We continue to remind farmers, to remind our elected officials, that we need pro-growth policies for the biofuels industry, because it’s good for rural America.

Read More: U.S. ag secretary touts importance of low-carbon fuels

We purchased nearly $30 billion worth of corn in 2021. Not only are we producing ethanol, but we have an array of bio-based products, including high-protein animal feed. We take that kernel of corn and we’re really adding value to that kernel of corn.

SF: Will exports have a big impact in the future?

ES: I would like to think so, yes. We started exporting in 2011. The latest figures I have for 2021 (November 2020 to November 2021) we were about 1.3 billion gallons. It was on par with 2020. There is a growing appetite globally for low-carbon fuel and affordable fuel. 

We do face headwinds in the form of protectionist tariffs. Brazil is a good example. We need access to markets, we need free trade. Over 60 countries have low-carbon policies. Now it’s a matter of getting them to enforce the policy they have on the books, or getting them to import more ethanol because it’s a low-cost octane enhancer. Canada is our No. 1 trading partner right now because they’re moving toward higher blends. They’ve got their own climate ambitions. The UK is starting to blend E-10 in September, and there are a lot of other markets – particularly in Asia – that want cleaner emissions and affordable fuel.

SF: Tell me about the “Get Biofuel” campaign.

ES: The Get Biofuel campaign is a signal that addressing climate is part of our cultural consciousness. 

We want to inform consumers that there are options at the pump. They can make a simple change, simply change fuel, and can benefit the environment. It is a consumer-oriented campaign. We’re educating them that they should be thinking about biofuels, like plant-based ethanol.

We did a pilot of the campaign in two markets last summer with really wonderful results that showed we could educate consumers. They engaged with the information while going to the fueling station. I look forward to launching this nationwide. We’re focusing on markets where consumers can purchase E-15, right after the summer driving season.

We’ve got to tell our own good story. The story of ethanol is a wonderful success for agriculture and for clean energy. 

BIO:

Name: Emily Skor

Title: CEO, Growth Energy

Background: Prior to joining Growth Energy, Skor served as vice president of communications for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) and as the executive director of the CHPA Educational Foundation. Before joining CHPA, Skor served as senior vice president at a nationally recognized crisis management firm.

Home: Washington, D.C.

Education: graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley College

Family: Husband and two children

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