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Mired in Misère: Re-Launching Political Capital and Public Trust for Biofuels; Seven Strategies to Reinstate Our Industry’s Power in Washington, D.C. through Mainstreet, USA

Submitted by on June 8, 2018 – 3:46 pmNo Comment

by Jenna Bloxom (Colorado State University/Biofuels Digest)  … Now is the critical juncture for a unified bioeconomy to re-assert biofuels as a political powerhouse and compelling policy agenda that defies partisan, geographical, and generational divisions.

(T)his industry must take the initiative to drastically alter the public’s understanding and attitudes about biofuels in order to regain the political capital necessary for competing in tomorrow’s energy race.  Our potential to innovate lasting, effective solutions to fossil fuel dependency hinges upon social sentiment and political influence as much as it does ingenuity.  Public opinion is the ultimate linchpin that differentiates viable industries, worthy of attention and investment from public and private sectors alike, from those “obsolete” technologies perceived to survive only because of special interest lobbying and pork barrel policies.  If we cannot foster explicit and lasting support from the U.S. populace regarding the real and substantial benefits of bio-based fuels, we will fail to sustain the political capital imperative for the fiscal incentives, advantageous policies, and talented researchers and entrepreneurs vital to advancing our industry.

Public image, however, is based on generalized attitudes and “gut feelings” which endear or rebuff a product, industry, or social movement to an audience without requiring any depth of knowledge or meaningful devotion.

Not confined to mere first impressions and superficial facades, the vast power of political capital originates from the public’s unified trust in an organization or network’s ability to go beyond satisfying a functional need in society to instead pave the way towards a better future.

The biofuels industry has forgotten that we cannot exist, much less excel, in the political, economic, and social arenas without the nation’s certainty in the demonstrated superiority of our contributions to the economies and ecosystems of today as well as tomorrow.

Well, we have been underplaying the strengths of bio-based fuels to the public for various reasons: a deliberate prioritization of technological and engineering breakthroughs over political aspirations; an overconfidence in the permanency of growth opportunities inked in the RFS; a general malaise regarding legislative and bureaucratic ineptitude to promote stable, conducive market conditions; the expectation of our over-worked, under-funded interest groups and lobbyists to produce miracles; an incapacity to compete with the anti-biofuels crusade promulgated by the API and their allies; and a general lack of awareness of just how badly the public perceives biofuels.

Citizens, the very voters selecting our legislators as well as the consumers of our products, have been inundated with orchestrated attacks on biofuels for so many years that they are more aware of orangutan carnage on the other side of the world than cutting-edge bioeconomy discoveries occurring in their own state.  Biofuels have been painted as a scapegoat for global food price volatility by the World Bank, IMF, and FAO (despite utilizing less than 2 percent of the world’s arable land for biomass), a vampire of engine performance and infrastructure durability, and a boogeyman for the environment with respect to deforestation, land-use change, and hypoxia.

Scientists, academics, and activists with their own agendas jumped on the bandwagon of ghost stories disparaging biofuels, but even our supposed allies in the push for clean energy have abandoned us.  Perhaps there is no better illustration of our precarious lack of social appeal and political capital than the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Standing Rock was, among many things, a prime and missed opportunity for the biofuels industry to send a charismatic voice to the media frontlines to remind an attentive nation that ethanol, alone, prevented more than half a billion barrels of crude oil from flowing through American pipelines, sustained 340,000 domestic jobs, and contributed over $40 billion to the GDP that year.

But rather than directing the dialogue to confirm the vital benefits of U.S. biofuels, we stood silently in the shadows while activist after activist answered the inevitable question, “how do we prevent more pipelines like this one?” with the same answer: “more wind and solar energy.” 

(W)ithout a concerted effort to expose our achievements to the general public, we become complicit in our own unpopularity.

In short, this industry must re-capture the public’s conviction in our trail-blazing innovations by aggressively educating people with reliable, comprehensive facts as well as creating a dedicated outlet in which citizens can integrate and express their advocacy for biofuels though voting, dialogue, product consumption, and activism.

I. Educate and Disseminate Information To New Audiences

…  (T)he biofuels industry must spread information across various news and advertising outlets, academic and research forums, and social and cultural interest events (public platforms, community gatherings, state fairs outside of the corn belt, etc.) in order to re-emerge as a household institution—with an exotic reputation.

A new educational campaign for biofuels must be pervasive and persuasive enough to grab headlines as well as substantive enough to deserve the public’s support.

II. Establish a Distinctive Identity and Purpose

(O)ur industry should also work to demarcate ethanol, biodiesel, and synthetic hydrocarbons as wholly unique in both form and function to maximize our publicity and impact in various fuel markets.

III. Rebuild Moderate Legislative Support

Outside of stalwart agricultural districts, biofuels are perceived as too environmentally controversial to be embraced by many progressive legislators and too indicative of the Big Government “swamp” to be endorsed by scores of conservatives.

This expanding deficit of middle-of-the-road support is deeply troubling as there is one inconvertible truth in representative democracies: moderate votes pass bills.

… (S)o as the biofuel industry prepares for imminent policy battles now and certainly in 2022, we need to drastically expand our outreach and build political capital with moderate congressional representatives. The biofuel industry must tailor motivating messages to otherwise ambivalent lawmakers to demonstrate the definitive fiscal and environmental capabilities of ethanol, biodiesel, and green synthetic hydrocarbons.

IV. Transform from a Proxy to Principal Interest

To attract the interest of legislators from all fifty states, we must revamp the reputation of biofuels as a profitable, self-sufficient enterprise with significant applications to those main issues concerning all voters—energy security, military strength, ecological resilience, and domestic job growth.

V. Strengthen Alliances with Familiar Enemies

…(C)orporations including Shell and BP are also proudly boasting of their advanced biofuels investments while ExxonMobil endlessly runs television ads promoting their algae research.

Make no mistake, this paradox is not some nefarious ploy of simple “greenwashing” by firms otherwise disliked by the general public; this is a sincere and effective tactic to generate political capital by convincing citizens that this industry is pro-actively working on their behalf to ensure abundant supplies of cleaner, cheaper energy that will provide this nation with unlimited growth, wealth, and stability.  The candor behind these claims is irrelevant (though, the intention is indisputably authentic given the potential profitability), but the political power secured by petroleum companies understood to be safeguarding the “American way of life” is immeasurable.

…(T)o re-claim the political capital that is rightfully ours, the bio-based fuel industry as a whole must pursue a truce with the adversary who knows us best…or call them on their bluff while the world watches.

VI. Negotiate Long-term, Strategic Pathways and Goals

Negotiating a truly encompassing agenda will prove challenging as there is a propensity to buttress the expectations and interests of corn ethanol at the expense of emerging, under-developed facets of bio-based fuel production, but since these promising and contemporary divisions within our ranks command the most attention and intrigue in the public eye, our long-term goals must equally represent both the first and the third generation of biofuels.

VII. Build Political Capital for Specialized Industrial Sectors

To inspire public support as well as fruitful policy provisions, these segments of the biofuels industry must stop riding the legislative coattails of corn ethanol and prove themselves as both independently viable and valuable to the energy future of this country.

Since political capital is more effectively wielded with a scalpel than a claymore, each specialized faction of bio-based fuels, from cellulosic ethanol to waste-derived SAF, requires meticulous messaging and a customized outreach strategy to successfully build real connections with citizens and lawmakers.

…(T)rue success in building political capital will require an industry-wide shift in priorities.  As a multifaceted yet united coalition of bio-based fuels, we can return to controlling our outreach and education platforms, demonstrating the superiority of our innovations, and garnering widespread support instead of perpetually dodging falsehoods and relying on help from a handful of elected legislators regularly branded by their own constituents as paid mercenaries for moneyed interests.      READ MORE

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