The biofuels industry might have powerful enemies in oil and food groups, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has a plan to defeat them.
At the Renewable Fuels Association‘s National Ethanol Conference in Las Vegas, Vilsack told the audience Thursday to combat attacks on the industry and federal policy that helps it compete, because it’s too important not to. The industry is being tested by environmental groups that don’t see biofuels’ benefits, by the oil industry in court and by trade matters overseas.
Why the challenges?
“I believe there’s a reason, and that reason is that you’re winning. … The folks on the other side are a bit concerned that you’re winning,” Vilsack said. “So my message to you, in part, is you’ve got to keep pushing on. You’ve got to keep fighting.”
The problem, he said, is that the population is increasingly disconnected from rural America, despite providing 85% of the food consumed nationwide and helping to make the country less reliant on foreign oil. Most Americans don’t realize the importance of the biofuels industry, with 380,000 jobs in rural and urbanized areas relying on its existence, Vilsack said.
To start to fix this, the industry can reach out to those in power, such as Chuck Hagel, who has been nominated secretary of the Defense Department. The military is already promoting research on biofuels to make itself less reliant on oil, a resource that is not always secure. Vilsack said the biofuels industry should foster a relationship with the military, which, in turn, could make it easy for lawmakers to defend the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires a certain amount of ethanol to be blended into the gasoline supply, among other things.
More potential allies lie in national, state and local environmental, labor and economic-development groups, as well as industries that do business with biofuels companies, Vilsack said. They can spread the message of the industry’s importance.
“Now’s a great opportunity to develop a better relationship and a better level of communication between folks who may not have thought that they had common ground, but now do, because you all have created that common ground,” he said.
The industry should also reach out to young people, especially those who want to go into agriculture and biofuels one day.
“You may not have as much money as the petroleum industry, you may not have all the slick consultants that they have, but you have an army of young people who understand the social media, who can blanket that media with a message that overcomes the paid media,” Vilsack said.
Should they succeed, the trend of shrinking rural America might turn around, Vilsack said, and the economy could become reliant on innovators in biofuels.
The survival of rural America is at stake, he said.