WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D, is concerned about two major issues that can affect farmers and ranchers this year.
One is the farm bill that faces an uncertain future as it’s set to expire in September. The other is waivers that some small U.S. refineries have been receiving from the Environmental Protection Agency to not produce ethanol, he said in a teleconference on Friday, April 20. Democrats also raised concern about the issue in a letter to President Trump on Friday.
As for the five-year farm bill, Rounds said he has many concerns as the Senate works to possibly pass its version of a farm bill after the House completed its work without Democratic support.
One of the bright spots -- and there aren’t many -- is that it looks like the number of Conservation Reserve Program acres where farmers are paid to keep marginal land out of production and improves wildlife and environmental issues is going to increase.
He’s hoping for 30 million plus acres to be enrolled, although some reports say it could climb as high as 32 million acres. Currently, the acreage limit has been set at about 24 million acres.
As for the downside, Rounds said they need 60 votes in the Senate to pass a new farm bill that usually attracts bipartisan support as rural legislators want protections for farmers and ranchers and their urban counterparts seek help for the poor under the food stamp or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that dates back to 1939 -- almost as far back as farm bills that started in Congress in 1933.
However, a work requirement that the House Republicans have insisted upon for more people who receive food stamps is a major sticking point and could derail any efforts to pass a bill.
Rounds supports work requirements, but said to get a bipartisan bill there might have to be some give and take on the rural and urban issues.
The senator, however, believes farmers and ranchers are on the “tip of the spear” in the current trade and tariff disputes with China as well as disagreements over the NAFTA trade pact with Canada and Mexico and the Trans Pacific Partnership involving 500 million people in the Asia-Pacific region.
“We have to protect farmers through this period,” he said. “This is not the time to be delaying the farm bill.”
Concerning the ethanol issue, Rounds said he has been communicating with EPA Chief Scott Pruitt and his staff about the waivers 25 smaller refineries have received that allow them to stop producing ethanol.
The senator thinks the move has caused a drop of about 1 billion gallons in ethanol production, which is a serious blow to corn growers.
He said the Clean Air Act allows for a waiver for smaller refineries if it’s causing an economic hardship, but that the EPA might be giving more waivers than needed or allowed by law, although one refinery blamed its bankruptcy on having to produce ethanol.
The Renewable Fuel Standard calls for 15 billion gallons of ethanol to be produced, which could be affected by the waivers.
When asked if Pruitt, being from Oklahoma where the oil industry is well established, had an effect on the waivers as the oil industry loses when ethanol usage grows, Rounds didn’t give a definite answer.
However, two House Democrats on Friday said Pruitt was “inappropriately issuing waivers to fuel refiners in order to undermine” the RFS. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Rep-. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., sent the letter to President Trump.
“Misuse of the small refiner exemption to reduce renewable fuel volumes undermines the goal of the RFS program, creates uncertainty and economic hardship in the agricultural community, and gives unfair advantage to specific facilities within the refining sector,” Pallone and Peterson wrote to President Trump. “In addition, the lack of transparency and public accountability related to the granting of these waivers creates the appearance of partiality to favored interests.”
The two asked that Trump instruct EPA to suspend consideration of any additional waiver program.