Remember how Mike Rounds told us that Keystone XL would help South Dakota farmers by freeing up rail cars to haul grain instead of oil? Farm and blog friend Don Carr notices that, once Rounds was safely elected, the South Dakota Corn Growers changed their tune and admitted that the tar sands pipeline would not free up that much rail for farm products (a "blip on the radar," said SDCGA president Keith Alverson).

Carr contends that Rounds is putting Big Oil over Big Corn:

Rounds offered tepid support at best for one of South Dakota’s biggest ag products saying corn ethanol’s role was only as an oxygenate – not a ringing endorsement. And Rounds proudly took money from interests looking to upend the corn ethanol mandate. Meanwhile his challenger called for a dramatic increase in the blend of corn ethanol to 30% in U.S. gas tanks and was the only one to offer an agriculture policy plan [Don Carr, "Keystone Forces Corn Farmer Quandary," Republic of Awesome, 2015.01.06].

Apparently the Big Ag interests who backed Rounds are less interested in promoting their energy production than in blocking regulation of their pollutants:

American water quality is declining due to agriculture pollutants. Regulation is an increasingly viable option. For those reasons defeating the EPA rule has become agriculture’s main quest. So much so that they’re willing to jump in bed with declared enemies and let campaign lies slide [Carr, 2015.01.06].

By backing Rounds, the corn lobby is saying it wants to increase the chances of oil pollution on the prairie while fighting efforts to curb their own polluting activities. They have thus thrown in with a 100% pro-pollution Congressional delegation.

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Big Ag groups in South Dakota are raising a stink about the EPA's latest proposed regulations to keep our water clean. As we know, this industry-manufactured fuss is mostly myth. The EPA is using science to make clear, consistent rules to protect South Dakota tourism and agriculture.

Mike Rounds won't let truth stop him from advocating that we "shut down" the EPA. But wait—an eager notes that shutting down the EPA would pull the rug out from under farmers who count on the EPA to maintain the ethanol mandate. Rounds liked the federal subsidy that boosted ethanol. Rounds's fellow farm-state Republicans really want the EPA to stick around and force folks to buy more ethanol.

Perhaps Rounds should ask to change his answer: he doesn't really want to shut the EPA down. He just though the E stood for "Ethanol," not "Environment."

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Want to meet the King of the Netherlands? Go to Emmetsburg, Iowa, Wednesday and see His Majesty Willem-Alexander break a wooden shoe across the bow of the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the country.

The King is coming because Dutch bioscience firm Royal DSM has partnered with Sioux Falls-based ethanol producer POET in Project Liberty, an effort to make ethanol out of something other than stuff we eat. DSM has developed the enzyme that breaks down corn-waste cellulose; POET has built the new processing plant in Emmetsburg that will use DSM's biotech to turn 770 tons of corn stover (cobs, leaves, husks, and stalks) into 20 million gallons (and eventually 25 million gallons) of cellulosic ethanol each year.

A UNL study earlier this year contended that making biofuel from corn stover would do more harm than sticking with gasoline by removing biomass from the soil and reducing farmland's capacity to capture carbon dioxide. The EPA says the study is based on the erroneous assumption that cellulosic ethanol harvesting would remove all of the stover from farm fields. POET says it is promoting sustainable corn waste harvest methods that would leave about 75% of the biomass on the ground to maintain soil nutrients and prevent erosion. We have to burn more fuel to make more passes over the corn fields to collect this biomass, but POET says removing excess corn waste will allow farmers to make fewer tillage passes over their fields to incorporate the remaining residue or make it easier to go to no-till farming.

So welkom Koning Willem-Alexander, and gefeliciteerd en veel geluk to Poet and DSM on making celluslosic ethanol commercially viable.

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John Tsitrian asked for policy specifics from prairie populist Rick Weiland; now he's got 'em! The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate has released his Agriculture Policy and Rural Development position statement, and it's chock full of good policy aimed mostly at protecting and promoting the interests of rural South Dakotans:

  1. Expand E-30. Weiland says he's been using 30% ethanol blend fuel in his car, and his engine is running fine. Whether greater ethanol use is good policy on energy and environment remains open for debate. But in the South Dakota Senate race, backing ethanol more passionately than Mike Rounds only helps Rick Weiland.
  2. Provide incentives for companies to build out high-speed broadband to rural South Dakota. Weiland says broadband boosts farms, small businesses, and rural schools. I agree: Internet is like water or electricity. In the 21st century, we can't let lack of access to the greatest communication network ever make rural folks second-class citizens. And Weiland reminds us that we need net neutrality to prevent non-corporations (i.e., real people) from becoming second-class citizens with respect to the information we want to produce and share online.
  3. Complete the funding and build out of the Lewis & Clark Rural Water System. Weiland backs the pork that our own Republicans can't resist, and he makes the reasonable point that water is more precious than oil.
  4. Protect access to railcars for grain and ethanol producers. Harkening to net neutrality, Weiland says coal and oil producers are getting preferential treatment on the rails. (Some wiseguy will come in here and say we could solve the problem by building the Keystone XL pipeline; I'll say how about we just leave that oil in the ground and save the rails for homegrown food and fuel?)
  5. Increase collaboration between private capital, local elected officials and the federal government. Weiland doesn't like EB-5, but he does like economic development as practiced by the Rural Electric Economic Development Fund. He doesn't lay out a specific federal initiative on this topic... but while we keep our corny capitalism radars tuned tight, let's hear King Crony Rounds challenge this plank.
  6. Establish a Federal/State Infrastructure Trust Fund to rebuild outdated and dangerous roads and bridges in rural America. Weiland says 21% of South Dakota's rural roads and bridges are "structurally deficient." Unlike the current Congressional Republicans, Weiland just says Fix it! And backing federal investment in rural transportation infrastructure perfectly pincers Rounds, who must admit to his own skinflint addiction to federal highway dollars.
  7. A moratorium on the closure and reduction in hours of all rural Post Offices pending a review of legislation requiring prepayment of pension program. There's a good hometown issue, especially for a guy who's been to all those towns that lost out on the last round of postal service reductions. Backing rural post offices also gives a very practical example of what the mindless anti-government rhetoric of the SDGOP means for daily quality of life in rural South Dakota.
  8. Reform the Farm Commodity Program. Weiland says the Farm Bill should be a safety net for real family farms, not corporate welfare for Big Ag.
  9. Reform the Crop Insurance Program. Weiland wants to cap premium subsidies so big corporations can't get huge breaks from the taxpayers.
  10. Increased federal funding to USDA’s rural development programs. Whatever he can save by cutting corporate subsidies, Weiland wants to redirect to small-business development.

We can boil the best parts of Weiland's rural platform down to one priority: look out for the little guys. Get rural students and back-forty entrepreneurs on the fast Web. Fix the roads so they can get to town. Pry federal handouts away from big corporations so they can do more good for small-town businesses. Mike Rounds will have a tough time coming up with a better rural platform than that.

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Last week Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland jumped in front of the ethanol issue and declared himself in opposition to the Obama Administration's flagging support for turning South Dakota corn into motor fuel. Weiland said the EPA, President Obama, and his own Democratic Party are caving to pressure from Big Oil, an impressive defense of South Dakota economic interests over party spin.

A week later, Marion Michael Rounds pauses between calls to his lawyers and EB-5 cronies and remembers he should be campaigning for Senate, too. He Facebooks from a Madison ag meeting to say Rick Weiland is right:

I share their frustration over the EPA's decision to scale back ethanol requirements in the Renewable Fuel Standard.

South Dakota business men and women invested significant amounts of money in the infrastructure to produce the ethanol needed to meet the standard. Now the EPA wants to change the rules midterm.

We should not allow them to pull the rug out from underneath Midwestern ethanol producers at this stage of the game. We need many different types of energy production. We need to make North America energy independent. Ethanol should play a role [M. Michael Rounds, Facebook post, 2013.11.18].

Note the difference in tone: Weiland comes out swinging, challenging the powers that be, including his own party leadership. Rounds wheezes milquetoasty pap about changing rules midstream, a position that disappears when we talk about the Affordable Care Act or any other program Republicans don't like. Rounds echoes the kind of dodgy response we hear when we ask budget hawks like Rep. Kristi Noem and Senator John Thune why we should keep spending money we don't have on porky projects like the Lewis and Clark water system.

Both Weiland and Rounds are angling for farm votes, perhaps at the expense of wise environmental and long-term economic sustainability. But at least Weiland is saying it like he means it. Rounds's response is cautiously, politically tuned and far from a firm defense of ethanol itself as good economic policy.

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This could be complicated.

Rick Weiland sent out a press release Monday "hammering" (that's Team Weiland's word) the Obama Administration for considering a "stupid" (that's also Team Weiland's word) reduction in the ethanol mandate. Weiland included a copy of the EPA draft memo leaked last month that suggests cutting the amount of ethanol required in motor fuel blends in the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standards.

The biofuels industry is in full propaganda response mode. Weiland sounds rather fired up himself:

"If you ever thought big money special interests control only the Republican Party," Weiland said, "this is the proof that you are wrong. Big oil has been trying to gut the renewable fuels industry for years. They have poured millions of the dollars they steal from us at the pump into high priced lobbying and huge political contributions. Now, it appears the EPA will soon cave into pressure from oil companies and propose a cut in ethanol use next year of around 1.4 billion gallons. They will pretend it's needed to give oil companies more time to adjust to higher ethanol blends like E15, but that's hogwash. This is Big Oil’s payoff," Weiland charged [Rick Weiland, press release, 2013.11.11].

There's no doubt that Big Oil would like to see the government stop favoring a competing product. But Big Oil, like Tea Partiers and a broken clock, can be right a couple times a day. Right on top of Weiland's call for keeping ethanol in our gas tanks, this detailed AP report says President Obama's ethanol push has done enormous harm to the prairie:

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished on Obama's watch.

Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.

Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can't survive.

The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact [Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo, "The Secret, Dirty Cost of Obama's Green Push," Associated Press, 2013.11.12].

So you have the liberal media saying President Obama sold out prairie and wetlands to the ethanol lobby. You have Rick Weiland saying that, in backing away from ethanol, President Obama would be selling out to Big Oil. Partisans, call me when you sort out your loyalties there.

Weiland is clearly placing his chips with South Dakota's ethanol backers. I'm curious: will any other Senate candidates oppose him and make the case that ethanol is bad for the land that we've turned into a fuel factory? Or will Weiland's declaration on ethanol be a moot point in a Senate race where everyone seeks distance from a President who may be changing his mind?

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The District 33 Senate race pits Republican Rep. Phil Jensen against Independent Matt McGrath. Both men have brave mustaches. That makes this race a hard choice.

But if neither man can win by a whisker, maybe one can win by telling us what he plans to do in Pierre. Matt McGrath would win that contest. He's just posted a four-point plan that tells us what he will do and what he won't do in Pierre:

  1. Turn pine beetles into motor fuel! Well, not quite. McGrath advocates ten-tupling funding for forest thinning to fight the pine beetle, from $1 million to $10 million a year. What to do with all those felled trees? Turn them into cellulosic ethanol, which McGrath says is likely enough that we should forge private-sector partnerships to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in the Black Hills. (I need to get down to a legislative forum and ask McGrath about this report questioning the viability of cellulosic ethanol.)
  2. Convert school lighting to LED bulbs. Don't let Lora Hubbel hear about this, but McGrath says we scrounge up thousands of dollars for each school in costs savings just by switching to LED lighting.
  3. Promote the Homestake Underground Laboratory. McGrath is fuzzy here. He says the Homestake Lab could turn the Black Hills into the next Silicon Valley, but he doesn't make clear what role the Legislature can take in making such development happen.
  4. "Never Sponsor, or Co-Sponsor, Social Policies." McGrath vows never to dirty his hands with "legislation that furthers a right wing or left wing social agenda." McGrath is referring primarily to his opponent, whose backside he blisters in a page dedicated to Rep. Jensen's anti-Muslim hysteria and advocacy of killing doctors who perform abortions. But I wonder: isn't funding public education part of a social agenda?

McGrath's four-point plan invites debate. But at least he's focused on practical lawmaking, not on the culture war that seems to preoccupy his opponent.

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If you're going to Mitchell for DakotaFest today to watch Matt Varilek crush Rep. Kristi Noem in their first face-to-face debate, here's a good question to submit to the candidates: "Do you support suspending the ethanol mandate of the Renewable Fuels Standard to increase corn supply and lower prices for food and livestock feed?"

If Stephanie Herseth Sandlin were participating in today's debate, her answer would be No:

Thanks to the RFS and related policies, the advanced and cellulosic biofuels industry has gone from a science experiment to a job-creating industry in the very communities now hit by the drought. Billions of dollars have been invested by the private sector, and steel is going in the ground in rural America right now. Undermining the RFS, or even creating uncertainty around its future, would put the future of those investments, jobs and communities in question.

Granting any waiver based solely on political expediency would be inappropriate. Indeed, that would pile disaster upon disaster for the very communities suffering from the drought, putting us on a path of undoing the RFS's work longer-term. If our priority is helping rural America and continuing to enhance our energy security, we must prioritize protecting the RFS [Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Tom Ewing, "Leave the Renewable Fuels Standard Alone," Politico, August 21, 2012].

Matt Varilek and Kristi Noem have both expressed support for ethanol, though Noem didn't fight hard enough to continue funding for ethanol blender pumps in the stalled House Farm Bill, and she supported a compromise measure ending tax credits for ethanol producers. But in this case, they must balance ag against ag: ethanol helps corn growers, but it's putting drought-stricken ranchers (and eaters) in a bind. Asking Varilek and Noem (and you, dear readers!) to weigh the ethanol fuel mandate against food and livestock feed is a great way to test the candidates' ability to make hard policy choices. Citizen Herseth Sandlin has made her choice clear; how about you, Matt and Kristi?

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