Michael Dolch, ISA Director of Public Affairs

(Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Policy Update: Playing the long game

March 15, 2021

Get into the game or go out of business. 

In the current digital and political climate when connecting with others has never been easier or more important, policy advocacy is not simply about steaks and handshakes anymore. 

By no means am I dismissing the importance of the traditional lobbyist or issue advocate. Their role in building and maintaining personal relationships every day cannot be overstated. But there is so much more to a successful public affairs effort these days. 

What congressional policy staff and elected officials need today more than ever is air cover. Put another way, they need grassroots support for their position and an ally that captures, educates, engages and nurtures the effort along. This is the driving force behind the Iowa Soybean Association’s (ISA) year-round, farmer-led policy development and advocacy process. I like to say we are focused on advocacy and policy outcomes. We play chess, not checkers.

To further this point and thought-provoking declaration, I will peel back the layers of an issue playing out at the federal level. 

Over what feels like a decade, but is really only a few years, Iowa soybean farmers, advocates and biodiesel producers have repeatedly engaged key policymakers and agency officials to voice concerns over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) abuse of small refinery exemptions (SRE) under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Excessive use of SRE’s undercuts the purpose of the RFS and has destroyed billions of gallons of biodiesel demand.

An oil refinery producing less than 75,000 barrels of crude oil per day that can qualify for an SRE by showing compliance with the RFS would cause undue economic harm. Unfortunately, the EPA’s granting of these exemptions has exploded, providing relief for some of the world’s largest oil companies, including Chevron, Exxon Mobil and HollyFrontier. This has occured at the expense of the U.S. farmers and biofuel producers.

The EPA signaled the dawn of a new era by flipping its official position on future small refinery exemptions. The new position stems from a ruling issued last year by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that the EPA can only grant an SRE if a refinery satisfies two conditions: (1) the facility can demonstrate an existing exemption, and (2) the facility can demonstrate disproportionate economic hardship caused by the RFS program.

The EPA’s about-face and newfound agreement with the 10th Circuit’s decision was several years in the making and can be chalked up to playing the long game. ISA and other biofuel proponents deployed a steady, consistent barrage of grassroots support, including face-to-face and virtual conversations, phone calls, emails and pressure from Iowa’s stalwart congressional champions.

All too often advocacy at a legislative level feels like one step forward, two steps back. This is understandable since we often find ourselves in the agriculture industry playing defense and responding to immediate threats. It is a marathon, not a sprint, and actions today are planting the seeds for a positive future. The key is to set realistic expectations and understand that influential relationships and administrative and policy changes take time. 

Whether ISA is leading policy advocacy on biofuels, trade, infrastructure or conservation, I encourage you to keep your eyes on the prize and get in the game. Results happen when we do.

This story was originally published in the March 2021 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.