Election Nears, Help Arrives

In this month’s cover story, we report on the results of our recent survey of ethanol plant general managers and CEOs on the operational impact of COVID-19, their current state, their outlook on recovery and even their views on the upcoming election.
By Tom Bryan | October 04, 2020

As we approached press time with our latest print issue in mid-September, good things were suddenly happening for ethanol. President Trump declared by Tweet that the U.S. federal government should allow E15 to be dispensed in E10 pumps, giving our industry a potential bypass to a real (or maybe not) infrastructure challenge. Then, short of a full correction of its years-long abuse of small refinery exemptions (SRE), the U.S. EPA denied the oil industry’s pending “gap-year waivers,” an action our industry was battling hard for. And on top of it all, Brazil announced it would defer its restrictive tariff rate quota for an extra 90 days—well past November—which U.S. producers embraced while highlighting the impermanence of the reprieve.

These developments, while curiously timed, are undeniably positive for our industry and really could accelerate the recovery we are already experiencing. There’s no denying that our industry is a political creature—maybe too much so—but there’s a real fairness in our amplified voice during presidential election years. This time around, ethanol producers have been genuinely mad at the Republican incumbent, and they needed Trump to give them something—anything that looked like real support—before Election Day. And now he has.

In this month’s cover story, “Ethanol’s Recovery Readout,” Lisa Gibson reports on the results of our recent survey of ethanol plant general managers and CEOs on the operational impact of COVID-19, their current state, their outlook on recovery and even their views on the upcoming presidential election. It’s fair to say most producers are very dissatisfied with the current administration’s action on SREs, which, over time, has damaged our industry more than the pandemic and the trade war with China combined. Our survey results indicate that most producers are, indeed, on the road to recovery—a majority approaching normal production levels this fall—and a surprising many producing high-end alcohols for sanitizer and other uses. They seem to agree that the industry’s recovery will take several months—a year or more, many said—yet a surprising number of producers are actively evaluating or investing in new technologies to enhance efficiency. Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised us, but it did.         

Even in difficult times, the ethanol industry seeks to improve its already superb quality assurance practices, and that can only be accomplished with accurate lab instruments. In “Keeping Ethanol Labs Between the Lines,” Matt Thompson helps us understand the benefits of control charts, statistical tools that help lab managers recognize and correct variability in their operations. Not all ethanol plant labs use control charts, but our sources say they probably should.

In “Award of Excellence Winner Doug Tiffany Knows Rural Values,” we profile the career of the 2020 International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo accolade recipient, who graciously shares his story with us. The University of Minnesota production economist has contributed to our industry by studying it from the outside, and offering producers, starting years ago, the kind of unconventional ideas they’re now closely examining.        

Enjoy the reading.

Author: Tom Bryan
President
BBI International