President Donald Trump visited Council Bluffs Tuesday to celebrate a “victory” with Iowa and Nebraska farmers at the Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy plant.

The victory included his administration’s recent move to lift a ban on selling gasoline mixed with 15% ethanol — E15 — during summer months and allow the fuel year-round. Iowa and Nebraska are the No. 1 and 2 ethanol producers. Sales of ethanol drive business for corn farmers and ethanol refining plants.

Sixth generational farmer Kevin Ross from Minden took a stand publicly during the event, thanking Trump on behalf of his farming family.

“In those conversations you heard the benefits of E15 and best of all, you listened,” Ross said, speaking to the crowd of a more than 1,000 invitation-only attendees. “You delivered on E-15, but we have more work to do … This is a win for the seventh generation on my farm and U.S. citizens.”

Trump toured flood-recovery efforts at the Offutt Air Force Base with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and the 55th Wing commander, Col. Michael Manion, before heading to SIRE around 3:15 p.m.

Arriving at SIRE, he toured the plant with Mike Jerke, president and CEO of SIRE; Steve Wellness, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture; Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of Renewable Fuels Association; and Karol King, chairman of SIRE’s board of directors.

“He is no stranger to our great state,” Sen. Joni Ernst said, as she welcomed Trump to the stage. “Thank you for keeping your promise to Iowa, Nebraska and all of our states across the Midwest, and a promise kept to our farmers.”

In an earlier release from Sens. Ernst, Chuck Grassley and Reynolds, they said thousands of Iowans have contacted them to say they need E15 to keep farming, that his directive to EPA to finalize the year-round sales of E15 will allow for an open marketplace with more fuel options, encourage competition and drive down fuel costs.

Randy Gard, executive director of Bosselman Enterprises in Grand Island, Nebraska, urged more people in the Midwest to sell the product.

“With only 10% of the convenience stores in Nebraska offering E15, there’s a huge market opportunity. Numbers don’t lie,” Gard said.

Officials from Growth Energy, a biofuels trade group, said they expect the new E15 rule to spur development in places like Nebraska and Iowa.

“It’s a huge boost for rural communities at a time when they so desperately need it,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, a biofuels trade group.

Skor, who was mentioned in Trump’s speech, said in an interview that the previous rules around E15 caused logistical issues for sellers and that she expected to see more gas stations offering the product.

During the event, Trump made references to officials “not believing in ethanol” and that now “the rich harvest of American soil is turned into fuel that powers American cars and industries,” he said.

“Under the previous administration, our leaders rejected American energy and ethanol, imposing radical restrictions on farmers,” Trump said. “We took it from eight months to 12 beautiful months … not one person was able to explain why they cut it off, but we ended it.”

Trump pledged to support America’s ethanol industry “like no other has fought before,” and farmers in the next year and a half “are going to be in the best position they have ever been in as farmers.”

While the crowd cheered and applauded Trump, he urged attendees to pass the USMCA, his proposed trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

“The brand new US-Mexico-Canada agreement will replace NAFTA and expand market access for American agricultural products. Go out and press the Dems … It’s going down as the best negotiated trade deals,” he said.

Trump used the SIRE platform to dig at former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination, who was also in Iowa Tuesday.

“The best thing that ever happened to farmers is me,” Trump said Tuesday before he boarded Air Force One to Iowa. “We gave them ethanol at 15, which nobody was ever going to do; which Biden didn’t do in eight years as vice president.”

Critics used the event as an opportunity to push the administration to issue fewer waivers of ethanol mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard.

“The E15 announcement gives with one hand, the waiver process takes with the other hand,” said former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, in a call with reporters before Trump arrived. “The result is that we are selling less than we would.”

Enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, the RFS mandate requires refineries to blend certain amounts of ethanol into the fuel supply every year.

The EPA has the power to issue waivers to small refineries that are struggling with undue economic hardships from the blending requirements.

But Vilsack said the Trump administration has been granting the waivers so liberally that they are going to facilities owned and operated by large, profitable companies such as Exxon and Chevron.

He urged the administration to return to the approach of the Obama administration, which exempted far less ethanol blending.

Vilsack served as U.S. agriculture secretary throughout President Obama’s two terms in office.

Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat who represents the area the facility is in, had said she planned to bring up the issue with Trump at the event. But she didn’t attend after White House officials said she wasn’t invited to the tour, just to sit with the audience.

In closing remarks and at the end of his speech, Trump signed an executive order alongside Reynolds and Ernst to “speed up biofuels advances” and “promote agricultural biotechnology,” a decision that orders federal agencies to “streamline” regulations to speed innovation.

“We will never stop fighting for our farmers, for our country and for our great American flag,” he said.

— Roseann Moring and Joseph Morton of the BH News Service contributed to this report.

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