Trump's agriculture department announces 30% biofuel goal for 2050

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday announced a goal for biofuels to make up 30% of U.S. transportation fuels by 2050, a move that could bolster an industry that has been otherwise battered by the Trump administration.

Refineries are currently required to blend 20.09 billion gallons of biofuel in 2020, about 10% of projected crude oil production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

President Donald Trump has been criticized by the corn-based ethanol industry after his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted exemptions to the blend requirement for dozens of oil companies over the last two years.

The biofuel goal, which also included getting the blend rate to 15% in 10 years, is part of a new department-wide sustainability initiative aiming to boost farm production by 40% and cut the farm sector’s environmental impact by 50% during the same period. The environmental goal also could deflect criticism from farmers and ethanol producers in an election year.

“I think, really, that’s maybe one of the easiest to achieve, with going from E10 to E15 … that’s a 50% increase,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said at a news conference.

Ethanol producers were waiting to see the reaction of the EPA, which has thwarted the move toward a 15% blend rate in the past even as the USDA has called for increased production of the corn-based fuel, said Todd Becker, chief executive officer of Green Plains Inc , which operates 13 ethanol plants.

“I don’t think this is a supportive EPA of ethanol,” Becker said. “I think they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming.”

The EPA said in a statement that it looks “forward to continuing working with USDA to support sustainable farming.” It noted that it approved E15 for year-round sales in 2019.

Trump’s first term ends in 2021, and he is campaigning for re-election in November.

The plan stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s ongoing approach toward environmental issues. Trump has described climate change as a “hoax.” Over the past two years, the EPA has granted more than 30 biofuel waivers to refineries, including facilities owned by Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron Corp .

The farm community’s anger over the administration’s ethanol policy has continued and given a potential opportunity to Democratic rivals, who hope rural voters in corn-producing states such as Iowa may be more open to voting for a Democrat – or simply not turn out on election day.

Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter in Washington and Mark Weinraub in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker