(Posted Thu. Mar 23rd, 2017)
NCGA joined ethanol producers and supporters this week in Washington, D.C. for the American Coalition for Ethanol’s (ACE) annual fly-in. ACE Executive Vice President Brian Jennings led a group of farmers, ethanol producers, fuel retailers and other business leaders on the “Biofuels Beltway March” to Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of the ethanol industry. A fourth generation South Dakota rancher and farmer himself, Brian knows first-hand the importance of ethanol to rural communities. Before becoming ACE’s top executive in 2004, Brian was education director and lobbyist for the South Dakota Farmer's Union and served on the staff of U.S. Senator from South Dakota Tim Johnson for six years working on agriculture, energy, rural development and trade issues. NCGA had a few questions for Brian to find out more about him and his views on the ethanol industry. Here’s what he had to say:
NCGA: What’s ACE’s number one strategic priority?
Jennings: Our top priority is to increase the use of ethanol. We pursue that priority through our government affairs activities and discussions with fuel suppliers and retailers about how they can make money by offering E15, E30 and E85.
NCGA: If we’re sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it’s been for ethanol, what did we achieve?
Jennings: To make it a really great year, we need to finally extend Reid vapor pressure (RVP) relief to E15, double or triple the number of retailers offering the fuel, make meaningful progress with automaker partners on getting a high-octane blend (something in the E25-40 range) into the marketplace, export north of a billion gallons of ethanol again and keep the RFS intact.
NCGA: When you’re passionate about what you do, there are always those scary issues that tend to keep you up at night. What issue(s) keep you up at night?
Jennings: Everything keeps me up at night. Everything…
NCGA: What do you want urban consumers, suburban soccer moms or MBAs new to the workforce to know about your industry?
Jennings: I want urban consumers, suburban soccer moms (and dads) and MBAs to know that they have a lot in common with the people who make ethanol. We all want to save money at the pump. We all want safe and reliable fuel for our vehicles. I want them to know sweet corn is for eating and field corn is for fermenting into fuel and livestock feed. Maybe NCGA and ACE should do an “exchange program” where we document soccer parents and MBAs who live in the shoes of corn farmers and ethanol producers and then launch a campaign to educate the public about their experiences?
NCGA: Who is ethanol’s target audience – who do you see as the ethanol consumer? And what are some of the hurdles in trying to move them from awareness to purchase?
Jennings: We have multiple target audiences. On any given day, that might be EPA, Congress, state regulators, fuel suppliers, retailers, and consumers among others. Technically speaking, refiners and fuel marketers who blend ethanol and supply retailers are our customers. Left to their own devices, refiners won’t use more ethanol, that’s one reason Congress enacted the Renewable Fuel Standard. Once marketers understand how much money they can make blending ethanol, they are quick to purchase and supply our fuel. Retailers are increasingly appreciating that selling E15, E30 and E85 helps them attract new customers, increase inside sales, get an edge on their competitors, and ultimately make more money. Once consumers are aware ethanol is the least expensive choice at the pump, they normally try it; they find out it is a safe and great fuel, and they keep using it.
NCGA: Fill in the blank: “If the ethanol industry just had ___________ we’d be so much better off.”
Jennings: I’d rephrase the fill in the blank: “If consumers just had access to higher blends of ethanol we’d all be so much better off.” The RFS is designed to give consumers access to ethanol. Fixing the RVP limit will give consumers more access to ethanol. Working with automakers to get a high-octane fuel into the market will give consumers more access to ethanol.
NCGA: The word “partner” means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?
Jennings: A teammate, someone you can rely on to work with you to accomplish a goal, someone who respects that other teammates play important roles too.
NCGA: Sustainability is a word that incites a reaction with most everyone. Sometimes it’s a positive reaction and other times it’s a negative reaction. What’s your take on sustainability?
Jennings: It’s unfortunate the term sustainability gets overused to the point its meaning has become diluted, because I think it is imperative for corn farmers and ethanol producers to operate and think in terms of sustainability. Our future profitability, indeed our survival, will depend upon making the most out of the soil, water, crops, feed and fuel we use and produce. The people who ridicule or dismiss climate change can’t trump the science which proves we all must adapt and innovate.
NCGA: Describe your personal management style. How do you think it impacts your organization’s culture or reputation?
Jennings: I try to work hard and lead by example. I hope it has a positive impact on ACE’s culture and reputation, but I suppose that’s up to others to decide.
NCGA: Pretend that President Trump called you up and said, “Ok, Brian, let’s have dinner – just the two of us – but you have to decide where we go.” Where would you want to take him, what would you order to eat and what message would you share with him?
Jennings: I’d take him to the Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse nearby the South Dakota ranch where my family raises cattle and crops. They don’t serve Trump steaks or Trump wine, but the beer is cold and the steaks are from South Dakota-raised cattle, so they are the finest. I’d convey to him how ethanol has helped revitalize rural America and that a strong economy requires a growing market for higher ethanol blends. He’d meet some local characters and the world would be a better place.
NCGA: You’re a CEO, you’ve given a number of interviews. Everyone knows you. Name one fact about yourself you’ve not previously shared.
Jennings: Everyone doesn’t know me, but that’s kind of you to think so. I’ve never previously shared that I’m an introvert. I don’t enjoy back-slapping in crowds or schmoozing at parties, I don’t talk for the sake of talking. It takes real work for me to socialize.
NCGA: What’s your favorite row crop (careful…)?
Jennings: I’d answer milo, but Ron and Keith Alverson have taught me that corn is king because it is an efficient user of water and nutrients, a superior crop in terms of restoring soil organic matter and sequestering carbon, and it makes for some pretty good fuel and livestock feed.
NCGA: On a more serious note, what are your future predictions for cellulosic ethanol?
Jennings: As long as we don’t let something bad happen to the RFS, I predict more corn ethanol plants will invest in bolt-on technology like Quad County Corn Processors has done to convert corn kernel fiber to cellulosic ethanol. Quad County produced around 5 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol itself last year, and dozens of plants are at various stages of adding similar technology. Corn is a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol, that’s a great thing.
NCGA: Last question. If there was one thing the corn industry could do to better support the ethanol industry, what would that be?
Jennings: Before I answer the question I must recognize NCGA and your state organizations for the tremendous support you have provided to the ethanol industry, from helping organize equity drives that led to the first plants to more recently making infrastructure investments to support the fuels of the future. Thank you for your support and please keep it up. To answer the question directly, the corn industry could work with ACE on improving the image of corn ethanol and helping us develop additional markets for ethanol here at home.