If there is a conversation going on involving ethanol, look over your shoulder – you’ll more than likely see President and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) Bob Dinneen at the center of it. An expert on energy, the environment and issues involving the ethanol industry, he is a sought after speaker and regularly testifies before federal agencies and congressional committees. However, coalition-building seems to be Bob’s greatest talent. Thanks to his tireless advocacy for all things ethanol, Bob has successfully paved an ethanol-friendly pathway that has expanded the Renewable Fuels Standard to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022. NCGA wanted to know what is on Bob’s mind when he’s on the job. Here’s what he told us:
NCGA: What’s RFA’s number one strategic priority?
Dinneen: Our top priority is growing demand. In today’s agriculture economy, farmers must sell their product at a price below the cost of production. Similarly, the ethanol industry is challenged by low margins and stagnant demand. We need to increase demand. That means higher ethanol blends, as well as increased opportunities across the globe.
NCGA: If we’re sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it’s been for ethanol, what did we achieve?
Dinneen: Greater access to consumers, RVP parity opportunity for E20, E30 and other higher level ethanol blends and approved federal policy for higher octane fuels. The only thing that would make that better? The Boston Red Sox winning the World Series.
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?
Dinneen: I have been doing this for 30 years, so there is nothing that surprises me, nothing that discourages me and certainly nothing that keeps me up at night. But I do always worry about potential division within our industry. I am comforted by the fact that all of us recognize the need to stick together. We all do talk often and work well together. The Fuels America coalition has been particularly helpful.
NCGA: What do you want urban consumers, suburban soccer moms or MBAs new to the workforce to know about your industry?
Dinneen: This isn’t your grandfather’s ethanol industry. Our industry is highly efficient, reducing carbon emissions and commercializing new technologies. Additionally, there is no food vs fuel challenge. We can do both. Finally, consumers should know that ethanol is the cleanest, cheapest source of octane in the world.
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?
Dinneen: That is a question that has bedeviled the industry for 30 years. While we all want consumers to demand our product, the fact is consumers do not buy gasoline additives. Consumers by gasoline. Our customer is the refiner and gasoline marketer that brings the fuel to the marketplace.
NCGA: Fill in the blank: “If the ethanol industry just had ___________ we’d be so much better off.”
Dinneen: Access to the marketplace. Access would empower consumers to use the ethanol blend best for their vehicle and pocketbook.
NCGA: The word “partner” means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?
Dinneen: A partner is someone you do-si-do during a hoedown.
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?
Dinneen: You are right that sustainability means different things to different people. Environmentalists see sustainability only in terms of climate change. Businesses see sustainability as economic viability. Policy needs to include both.
NCGA: Describe your personal management style. How do you think it impacts your organization’s culture or reputation?
Dinneen: My management style depends on the day, the issue and my mood. My wife finds that charming. My staff finds that vexing.
NCGA: Pretend that President Trump called you up and said, “Ok, Bob, 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?
Dinneen: Without question, we would be headed to The Monocle, where Nick would lead us to the best table for medium rare ribeyes and Jamesons. There, I would thank him for his support of ethanol and the RFS, and discuss the importance of trade to agriculture and the ethanol industry.
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.
Dinneen: I have been around for so long, there are precious few facts about me that are not known. But what is probably still unknown about me is that I starred in a Christmas special with Arthur Fieldler in the early 1960s. We rode in a horse-drawn sleigh through the Berkshires as the Boston Pops played Christmas Carols.
NCGA: What’s your favorite row crop (careful…)?
Dinneen: Unequivocally, enthusiastically and permanently -- corn.
NCGA: On a more serious note, what are your future predictions for cellulosic ethanol?
Dinneen: Cellulosic ethanol is a fuel that is already here, with plants like Quad County Corn Processors in Galva, Iowa, and DuPont’s facility in Nevada, Iowa, producing commercial quantities. Additionally, other ethanol producers, including Pacific Ethanol and Flint Hills Resources, have adopted “bolt on” technologies that allows them to produce both starch-based and cellulosic ethanol from the same corn kernel. EPA’s finalized strong RFS blending requirements for cellulosic fuels in 2017 will inject further certainty into the marketplace and I expect greater commercial quantities of cellulosic ethanol in the near future.
NCGA: Last question. If there was one thing the corn industry could do to better support the ethanol industry, what would that be?
Dinneen: NCGA and farmers across the country have done a phenomenal job. The policy and marketplace environment for ethanol that they helped to create has allowed ethanol to become the renewable fuel juggernaut that it is today. But one area in which more focus is needed is to restore a more constructive relationship between grain and animal agriculture with respect to ethanol.
NCGA thanks Bob for his personal take on the ethanol industry’s road ahead. In March, get to know the leader of the American Coalition for Ethanol Brian Jennings in our next series installment.
CommonGround is a group of farmers connecting with consumers through conversations about science and research and personal stories about food and misinformation surrounding farming. Supported by the NCGA and state corn organizations.
The Soil Health Partnership (SHP) is a farmer-led initiative that fosters transformation in agriculture through improved soil health. Administered by NCGA the partnership has more than 220 working farms enrolled in 16 states. SHP’s mission is to utilize science and data to partner with farmers who are adopting conservation agricultural practices that improve the economic and environmental sustainability of the farm.
The Corn Utilization and Technology Conference (CUTC) is a biennial event happening this June. Learn more.