PRESTON, Minn. — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz was in southern Minnesota just over a week ahead of the general election to discuss Joe Biden's agenda for ethanol production and how it would differ from the last four years.
Walz stopped at the POET Biorefining facility during the “Joe’s in Your Corner” tour on Oct. 24. The plant in Preston employs around 40 workers and takes in approximately 16 million bushels of corn from the area each year, according to its website.
The governor called himself a big supporter of the ethanol industry long before his 12 years in Congress and becoming the governor. He toured the site, which produces 46 million gallons of ethanol annually, with Chris Hanson, general manager of the plant.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved just how important ethanol producers were to the food and beverage industry, Hanson said. Plants collect C02 as a byproduct of ethanol production and sell it in large quantities to to make products like beer and soda.
But Hanson said C02 supply is also critical to meat producers.
"Because the governor had ethanol plants on the critical infrastructure list, we were able to keep running and keep supplying them so they could provide food throughout the pandemic," Hanson said.
Walz said ethanol is a "homegrown industry that Minnesota was one of the leaders in" as he toured the plant built more than 20 years ago.
"(The ethanol industry) creates market for our producers, creates jobs locally, reduces carbon emissions and gives us opportunities to save consumers money," Walz said.
Two days before the governor visited the plant in Preston, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made climate change a key topic in the final presidential debate. In the debate, Biden called climate change "an existential threat to humanity" and said the U.S. had a "moral obligation" to address it.
"We know we have to fight climate change, and we also know there's going to be a bridge time as we move from fossil fuels into newer technologies," Walz said. "Ethanol and biofuels are here to do that."
The governor described it as "fighting the fight" to move away from fossil fuels, and that's why as a member of Congress he pushed for the Renewable Fuel Standard to include more ethanol. But Walz said the Trump administration "simply hasn't followed those rules."
From 2016 to 2018 the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration granted 85 exemptions requiring the blend of at least 15 billion gallons of ethanol a year into the U.S. fuel supply. The exemptions, designed to help small refineries, accounted for approximately 4 billion gallons in lost biofuels demand.
"When they gave those exemptions to oil refineries, it meant we were burning more fossil fuels," Walz said. "It set us backwards instead of moving us forward."
Last winter, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver ruled that in 2017 and 2018 the EPA improperly granted small-refinery exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Hanson said the industry needs the RFS to be followed by Congress as its written because "billions of gallons of ethanol" have been lost with small refinery exemptions.
Expansion of E15 is also essential for the growth of the state's economy as well as the entire country, said Hanson.
"That should really be a bipartisan issue — it's not a Democratic or Republican issue," said Hanson of E15 expansion. "It's an American issue."
Walz echoed the need to expand E15 and more ethanol blends at the pump because it's a "national security issue" on top of being good for the environment.
"Why bring oil in from the Middle East when we can simply create ethanol in Preston, Minn.," Walz said.
Hanson said there's a massive opportunity for ethanol blends to succeed in the country with the right support, and more biofuels going into vehicles means more money saved by consumers.
"If you let the free market work, and you let ethanol get into that free market and compete with a highly subsidized oil industry — it will hold its own," Walz said. "People will make that smart choice."