PRESTON -- In one of his first campaign events since announcing his run for Congress, Democrat Dan Feehan lashed into Rep. Jim Hagedorn for failing to fight harder for the ethanol industry and farmers, who have been hammered by waivers granted to refineries exempting them from adding ethanol to gasoline.
In the last three years, waivers granted by Environmental Protection Agency to refineries have amounted to 4 billion gallons of ethanol. That's knocked out a quarter of what the nationwide industry of 200 ethanol plants produce in a year -- the equivalent of 50 ethanol plants.
The changes have staggered the industry, driving down the price of corn and reducing profits for farmers, who have been enraged by the decision amid an assortment of challenges from bad weather to tariffs. In August, the ethanol plant in Winnebago closed, resulting in the loss of 40 jobs.
"He's not actively taking part in fixing what's happening," Feehan said of Hagedorn.
"He takes money from Big Oil companies," Feehan added, saying that Hagedorn accepted $20,000 from oil companies. "And I think there's a direct connection between him being under the influence of those special interests and him not actively leading to stop this practice."
Feehan made his comments Thursday while touring the POET ethanol facility in Preston with general manager Chris Hanson. Feehan also toured the Al-Corn plant in Claremont.
Jake Murphy, Hagedorn's communications adviser, declined to address the Feehan criticisms, but attached a statement Hagedorn made in response to the EPA's proposed implementation of the Renewable Fuel Standard program last month.
"I spoke with the White House and strongly advised the EPA's proposed rule should be revised and reissued to align with the ethanol principles outlined by the President on October 4," Hagedorn said in his statement. "I will continue to hold the EPA's feet to the fire to ensure proper and full implementation of the RFS and the ethanol program."
Murphy also attached a news article highlighting Hagedorn's receipt of an award in September from Growth Energy, a leading proponent of biofuels.
But Feehan, who lost to Hagedorn by more than 1,000 votes in 2018 in his first bid for Congress, said Hagedorn wasn't doing enough. If he were in Congress, Feehan said, he would be building a coalition of representatives from ethanol and non-ethanol-based states to advocate for farmers and ethanol producers.
"(Hagedorn sits) on the Agriculture Committee right now. He is in a direct place to actively do something, to oversee the EPA in the first place," Feehan said. "But what he is saying right now is what he tends to say about the trade war: Well, we can hope for the best."
Hanson said farmers are "livid" over what he called the "corruption" at the EPA for failing to enforce the Renewable Fuel Standard properly.
He credited Trump for pushing through a policy change at the EPA allowing the sale of so-called E-15 -- which contains 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline -- year-round. But then the EPA under Andrew Wheeler "choose to corrupt that," he said.
"Whether they're disobeying (Trump) or something else is happening, I don't know," Hanson said. "But the right things are not happening at the executive level."
Asked if Hagedorn wasn't doing enough to support ethanol, Hanson said that Hagedorn has been a "strong supporter of the industry."
Hanson said the fortunes of individual ethanol plants are affected by local factors such as the price of corn. The price of ethanol that Preston gets can be different from the plant in Lake Crystal. Even amidst an industry-wide contraction, "we're in one of the best spots right here," Hanson said about the Preston plant.
The plant employs 41 people and will produce over 50 million gallons of ethanol this year.
Ralph Kaehler, a St. Charles farmer and Democrat who is also running for Congress in Minnesota's 1st district, was also critical of Hagedorn, saying, "You need to take a stance on behalf of farmers and not be worried about the (Trump) administration."
Kaehler said Hagedorn was clear when he ran that he would support Trump and all his policies, and that's part of the problem.
"That's why we need a representative that represents the district and their political party second," Kaehler said.