- - Tuesday, May 23, 2017

With all the publicity around fracking, it’s easy to assume that America’s own domestic oil production is more than enough to fuel a growing economy. It certainly helps. But there’s no magic bullet that will ensure long-term American energy security.

Case in point: Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that U.S. oil production slumped last year, even as U.S. drivers consumed more gasoline than any year on record. As a result, petroleum imports swelled, with the largest increase in crude oil shipments coming from Iraq and Nigeria.

At the same time, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has teamed up with Russia to put a lid on global energy production and push the price of a gallon of gasoline back to prerecession levels.

There’s no doubt that we are in a better position now than when the average gallon of gasoline cost drivers more than $4, but elected leaders who assume that fuel will stay affordable forever are betting against history — and the cash at risk belongs to drivers back home.

America can’t afford to be shortsighted when it comes to energy security. Drilling is not enough. We need a truly diversified energy portfolio so consumers don’t have to worry about paying the bills every time a hurricane in the Gulf or crisis in the Middle East shuts down a few oil rigs.

To make that happen, “all of the above” must be more than a talking point. We have to harness the full range of resources back home — wind, coal, oil, biofuels and the rest.

That’s where the problem lies. The administration is on board, but most lawmakers are so preoccupied with undoing the job-killing effects of Obama-era policies — a worthy endeavor, to be sure — that it would be easy to think America’s energy priorities begin and end with oil and gas.

They don’t. In fact, millions of voters in the heartland who cast their ballots for President Trump and other Republican leaders are far more focused on the huge surplus of energy-rich feedstocks sitting on American farms.

Those who don’t follow agricultural markets may not be aware, but a strong dollar combined with increasing global competition are forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to push down farm incomes for the fourth straight year in 2017. Add to that falling food prices and 2 billion bushels of surplus corn, and rural communities are facing an economic crisis larger than any since the 1980s farm bust. The Wall Street Journal called it the “steepest slide since the Great Depression.”

In short, American farmers are growing more on less land than was under cultivation in the 1930s, but our agricultural productivity needs an outlet, or the next rust belt will be a dust bowl. And the ripple effect of those job losses won’t be limited to rural states.

But, as they say, from crisis comes opportunity. Under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), fuel importers and refiners are required to let farmers compete at the pump, providing a growing share of the fuel mix in the form of ethanol and other biofuels made from homegrown crops. These biofuels already supply more than 10 percent of our motor fuel, and that demand has helped attract investments that now support hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

As a result, biofuels displaced 510 million barrels of oil last year alone, limiting OPEC and Russia’s grip on fuel prices, and the United States is now the world’s largest ethanol exporter. If policymakers can keep the RFS on track, rural communities will continue to benefit from profits that would otherwise flow overseas.

Consumers are protected, too. Even when gas is cheap, ethanol costs far less than petroleum-based fuel, and it provides a natural octane boost to fuel without expensive or toxic additives like MTBE. That’s why retailers in 29 states now offer ethanol blends beyond 10 percent.

In response, some are working overtime to cap or eliminate the RFS, restoring the petroleum monopoly over choices at the pump. It’s put some oil industry adherents in the ironic position of trying to attack the environmental benefits of renewable fuels, in direct contradiction of all credible science. In reality, the latest report from the USDA shows that ethanol slashes carbon emissions by 43 percent, a number that continues to rise with U.S. agricultural efficiency.

These simple facts explain why President Trump, Agricultural Secretary Sonny Purdue and many leaders in Congress have pledged to protect the RFS. They know that biofuels represent the single most promising opportunity to revitalize rural growth and uphold American energy security. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should take note of the rural mandate that propelled these leaders to office and start working on all-of-the-above solutions that can make a lasting difference in the heartland.

• Rick Santorum is co-chairman of Americans for Energy Security and Innovation.

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