WILMOT, S.D. — Many farmers today delivering corn to ethanol plants in the Dakotas and Minnesota don’t think about how the industry was created, the struggles of its pioneers, or think to dream about its future.
That's the message from former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, 73, who commented on the passing of Orris “Orrie” Swayze, a Wilmot, S.D., native who died Feb. 19, 2021, at age 77. Swayze was a giant in promoting ethanol — passionate and persistent. Swayze was memorialized by his family at a cemetery on June 8, 2021, at Wilmot.
Daschle described Swayze as a “missionary” for ethanol — one of the “giants” on whose shoulders an industry was born. Swayze was one of the early voices to tout a 30% blend (E30) as a “sweet spot,” in auto efficiency, and then pushed for even higher blends.
In a recent Zoom interview with Agweek, Daschle described how he met Swayze in the early 1980s and how he became an “informal but important adviser” in Daschle’s bipartisan efforts to make ethanol into a powerhouse and agricultural giant.
Jason Frerich, a former Democratic state senator and farmer from Wilmot, said Swayze will be missed for his passion. He was often blunt and impolitic, but he was “doing it for his fellow corn farmers, like myself,” Frerich said.
”If he was getting what he asked for yesterday, today he was already looking a few years down to road, and to the future beyond that,” Frerich said.
Frerich said he remembered traveling while still in college with the firebrand Swayze as he promoted splash-blending ethanol to 30% at the pump. Swayze was “never satisfied,” Frerich said. “It irritated a lot of his team, but I am proud to be on his team.”
Daschle said he sees new opportunities in Washington, D.C., to advance Swayze’s hopes and dreams for ethanol.
The former Senate majority leader said the Biden administration could be helpful in moving ethanol beyond the Renewable Fuel Standard that Daschle and Republican counterparts worked for.
Since leaving office, Daschle has been involved in a “high-octane, low-carbon” (HOLC) alliance to link with other organizations to develop ethanol. Among other things, he’s created the “Daschle Group,” which works with HOLC issues. Daschle sees E30 and the concept of high-octane, low carbon as a way to move into the expected future of electronic vehicles.
As partisanship and gridlock in Congress has escalated, it seems doubtful that any legislation will move ethanol forward.
“That makes the regulatory side all the more important,” Daschle said. To be effective, the agricultural industry and its allies in government must speak with one voice. “It can be nonpartisan — not even bipartisan,” he said.
“If you want to help agriculture, if you want to help the country, if you want to deal with the environment, if you want to recognize the inevitable around EVs, then high-octane, low carbon fuels is the only solution. It has to be the regulatory solution because in large measure, that is the realistic lay of the land in Washington today.”
Daschle acknowledged he was “very disappointed with the past administration’s efforts to eliminate many of the requirements for small refiners,” he said. “That, I think, was really catalytic in undermining the ethanol industry."
Daschle praised both Obama and Trump administrations for having an open door to discuss HOLC principles. The group has stepped up its efforts in the first six months of the Biden administration.
“We haven’t really received a definitive characterization of the administration’s position,” he said. “I think it’s going to be all the more important with this administration, with its Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Rule (SAFE rules) for tailpipe emissions."
Daschle said the Biden administration has ambitious goals for electronic vehicles. EVs are “unquestionably a part of the future of transportation in America” and may become a “dominant form” of personal transportation.
“What I do know is — for the foreseeable future, and I would say several decades yet to come — the internal combustion engine is still going to play a role and will be part of the transportation landscape,” he said. “We see E30 and high-octane, low carbon fuel as a segue fuel, a segue to EVs. The more we can adapt, as early as possible, to the recognition of the need for segue fuels, eliminating aromatics, greenhouse gases, ultrafine particles, the more we can meet the administration’s objectives and aspirations for dealing with the environmental and health questions we’re now facing.”
Daschle said Swayze promoted ethanol for health benefits, which resonates with the current administration.
“We have to recognize that there is a real health threat to minority communities in particular that we think ethanol can address effectively if we make this ‘segue’ fuel the reality as soon as possible,” he said.
Daschle said farmers are too young to remember ethanol struggles or have “taken it all for granted.”
“I’m saddened sometimes by their lack of appreciation of all the work by the people like Orrie that made it happen,” he said. If not for their efforts, if not for ethanol, people would “not see the vibrancy that we’ve seen in a lot of rural communities,” Daschle said, using his hometown of Aberdeen, S.D., and towns surrounding it as examples. Ethanol has increased the economic return-on-investment for farmers, but also the employment and infrastructure investments, taxes and economic strength and viability.
Lots of history
Daschle met Swayze in the early 1980s, when farmers faced a financial crisis.
“I can recall countless hearings we did around the crisis and the need for agricultural viability,” he said. “There were a lot of farmers that lost their farms in the ’80s.”
Daschle said farmers were already established as providers of food, feed and fiber, “but I became the advocate of the belief that they could add another ‘F’ — fuel, to the first three — primarily as a means to restore some economic stability to agriculture and rural America.”
Daschle — a political science graduate from South Dakota State University in Brookings — was elected to the U.S. House in 1978 and to the Senate in 1986.
Swayze, who had an undergraduate degree in chemistry from South Dakota State University in Brookings, already had studied ethanol and the science behind it and its advantages.
“He was really one of my early mentors,” Daschle said. “In fact, it could be he was my first mentor.”
Daschle served on agriculture committees in both bodies for 26 years. From 1994 until his defeat to John Thune in 2004, he was either majority or minority leader in the Senate.
Ethanol was called “gasohol,” and small ”stills” were being built in Daschle’s hometown of Aberdeen and elsewhere in the region. Ethanol initially was viewed as “somewhat of a parochial issue,” but the advantages later become “much more comprehensive and relevant to the rest of the country.”
Among the policy turning points were 1990 Clean Air Act amendments Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., included in the Dole-Daschle (or Daschle-Dole) amendment, which built a “launch pad” for ethanol. It required an oxygenate level in gasoline.
“We gave EPA enormous regulatory authority to determine how the formulation of gasoline would be created and regulated,” he said.
In 1997, Daschle worked with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to establish the Renewable Fuels Standard.
If the Clean Air Act created a “launch pad” for ethanol, RFS was “launch vehicle.” And E30? That’s the “orbiting mechanism,” Daschle said.
“We know, in particular, that the fine particulate matter and aromatics are just as bad for us as lead was in the 1980s,” he said. “We’ve got to phase out aromatics. And there is no substitute for aromatics that is able to address health and environment as much as E30.”
The policy priority that drives ethanol “may have to migrate away from the RFS,” and toward the health issues.
Daschle said Swayze saw ethanol’s value first from a national security point of view, then an environmental and agricultural point of view, and then a health point of view. "He was able to see far into the future,” he said.
“He was, without question, one of the most passionate and persistent people I’ve ever met,” Daschle said. “You couldn’t ignore him, because he wouldn’t go away. He was almost a ubiquitous presence at events almost anywhere you went, if it had anything do with ethanol, and in many cases just with agriculture.”