30 Years of Unparalleled Progress

By Bob Dinneen | January 14, 2011

Given the new entrants in the past few years, the memory of how the ethanol industry has evolved sometimes fades. As we prepare for what could be the seminal year in American ethanol, there is great value in recognizing how far we’ve come.

When the Renewable Fuels Association was formed in late 1980, America was producing just 175 million gallons of ethanol per year. Today, the industry produces more than 13 billion gallons annually, with some plants producing more ethanol than the entire industry in 1980. Once little more than a nuisance to big oil, ethanol now constitutes a significant percentage and is on the precipice of truly challenging big oil as a renewable alternative.

This success was not achieved overnight. For the past three decades, American ethanol producers have worked tirelessly to gain market access and level the playing field in a fuel market monopolized by cheap oil.

With the support of its members, the RFA has worked to extend the tax incentive on five occasions, including the final days of 2010. This tax incentive has been a driving force for ethanol use, encouraging critical investments. Any effort to reform the incentive cannot simply be a bumper stick slogan. It must be well-conceived and plausible to ensure the progress VEETC spurred is not lost.

Early ethanol producers also successfully convinced Congress to amend the Clean Air Act to require fuels with ethanol’s characteristics to improve air quality in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. This marked the first time ethanol’s value as a cleaner alternative to petroleum was recognized and was the first large scale expansion in the market for ethanol use.
None of these efforts were easy. They were ultimately successful because the industry, and most of agriculture as well, stood together. We beat back many of the same ill-informed claims we hear today about food and fuel, ethanol’s energy balance, and the cost-effectiveness of renewable fuels.

While those early efforts were significant, the most important advancements for American ethanol have occurred in the past decade. Unified behind one message, members of the RFA and our partners in agriculture helped secure the first renewable fuel standard (RFS) in 2005, requiring renewable fuels join petroleum in America’s fuel mix. More astonishingly, this same coalition successfully navigated growing headwinds in opposition to renewable fuels to expand the RFS by 500 percent in 2007. Now, the RFS is an ambitious and robust policy that recognizes the value of domestic ethanol production and the promise and necessity of emerging advanced and cellulosic ethanol technologies. 

As an employee of the RFA for more than 23 years, I am proud of everything the members of this association have been able to achieve. With your support, the RFA is not only the world’s largest ethanol trade association, but is recognized as the authoritative voice of the American ethanol industry in Washington and around the world. 

But our work is far from over. New challenges to ethanol policies will be mounted from within the new 112th Congress and from lobbyists desperately seeking a return to the status quo before ethanol. New technologies that will expand the basket of feedstocks from which ethanol is produced require continued commitment to commercialize and achieve the goals of the RFA. And, new voices within the industry itself reflect the diversity and dramatic growth we have experienced and, with it, new internal industry dynamics.

American ethanol production is not monolithic. The industry is comprised of small producers and large publicly traded firms. It is populated with innovative and ingenious leaders with no shortage of ideas for the future of the industry. Then again, the industry has always possessed and been proud of this pedigree. It is this diversity paired with a willingness to set aside differences for the good of the industry as a whole that has allowed for the unprecedented successes ethanol has achieved. These characteristics will be put to the test in the coming years. The RFA and its members remain steadfastly committed to policies that foster the development of the entire ethanol industry. 

On behalf of RFA employees past and present, I thank all of you who have supported this association for the past 30 years. The strength of this association and the industry as a whole are the people. It has been an honor to stand beside you and help facilitate the dramatic growth and innovation the industry has achieved. I look forward to tackling new challenges as we always have—together and with the facts.
Author: Bob Dinneen
President and CEO of the
Renewable Fuels Association
(202) 289-3835