California’s ban on gas-powered cars worries Minnesota’s corn and soybean farmers

Source: By Christopher Vondracek, Minneapolis Star Tribune • Posted: Monday, September 5, 2022

The Corn Plus ethanol plant on May 22, 2015, in Winnebago, Minn.
The Corn Plus ethanol plant on May 22, 2015, in Winnebago, Minn. — Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

California’s ban on new sales of emissions-producing vehicles after 2035 has sounded alarms in Minnesota, where farmers growing corn and soybeans that power ethanol and biodiesel are expressing wariness about the decision’s long-term implications.

“I’d say ‘concern’ is one word,” said Richard Syverson, a Clontarf farmer and vice president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “‘Disappointed’ is another one.”

In interviews this week, leaders of Minnesota’s corn and soybean lobby echoed similar refrains, hoping comprehensive restrictions limiting gasoline- and ethanol-using cars don’t come to Minnesota, where biofuels contribute over $2 billion to the state’s economy.

“Gov. Walz has stated renewable fuels is part of this clean air solution going forward,” said Dan Glessing, a dairy farmer from Waverly and president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation. “These electric cars have their place, but it’s a hard thing to sell in rural Minnesota.”

One week ago, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced the coming end for gas-guzzling cars and trucks across that state. Beginning as early as 2026, 35% of new passenger vehicles in California must be zero-emission. By 2035, no new gas-powered cars can be sold in the state, under the new mandate.

California’s action follows the European Parliament, which voted in June to ban the sale of new gasoline-burning cars by 2035. Other industrialized countries, such as Japan, are looking to tamp down on global warming by employing widespread bans in the transportation sector, which accounts for about a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas.

U.S. renewable fuels organizations have criticized CARB’s rule, while many climate scientists have applauded it.

“California is betting on the right horse,” said Jason Hill, a professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota. “Corn ethanol does not reduce greenhouse gas emission. It’s actually worse than gasoline.”

Historically, eco-friendly car measures in California are often replicated in over a dozen states, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In the days following California’s announcement, speculation in Minnesota surfaced over whether the state would be obligated to adopt California’s rules.

But state and ag industry officials said Minnesota determines its own future on regulating car emissions.

“We are not California. Minnesota has its own plan, and it’s been endorsed by Consumer Reports as a smart way to increase, rather than decrease, options for consumers,” Walz told the Star Tribune in a statement.

“In Minnesota we know we need to take a multi-pronged approach, which is why I’ve long supported biofuels. Our priority is to lower costs and increase choices so Minnesotans can drive whatever vehicle suits them.”

In 2021, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency finalized new rules implementing a “clean cars” program, mandating car dealers carry more electric vehicles and zero-emissions vehicles on sales lots. Those rules have been challenged in court by the state’s auto dealers.

But in a state where 37% of its corn is processed into ethanol, biofuels leaders are leaning on their deep ties with policymakers as a bulwark against more drastic changes to their programs.

“Without a doubt, California has been on the cutting edge of a lot of different things,” said Brian Kletscher, the CEO for Highwater Ethanol in Redwood County. “But time and time again, I heard Midwesterners say, ‘We don’t want to be like California.'”

The environmental impact of ethanol continues to be contested. The industry has long touted ethanol as cleaner burning than gasoline. But a recent report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that ethanol produces 24% more greenhouse gases than gasoline.

“You will always have a tailpipe when you’re burning liquid fuel,” said the U’s Hill. “The other thing that California and many other states care about is air quality.”

Joe Smentek, executive director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, said that he’s confident there will be room in the future for liquid fuels.

“It doesn’t really scare us,” he reiterated, returning to the California rule. “We weren’t surprised. I’d just say disappointed.”

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