Column: To win Iowa, you must support ethanol — and that’s good

Source: By Patty Judge, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, October 26, 2015

Like so many other issues today, what was once a source of bipartisan compromise and agreement has become laden with divisive rhetoric and the influence of special interests. So it goes with the Renewable Fuel Standard, a 2007 law establishing a widely lauded goal of increasing the amount of renewable resources in our gasoline to fight climate change, revitalize rural communities and put the U.S. on a path to energy independence.

In less than a decade, what was once seen as a symbol of good government and the synthesis of agriculture, energy and environmental priorities has become a political punching bag.

Renewable fuel is contentious inside the Beltway these days for one simple reason: oil industry influence. Being the only alternative liquid transportation fuel eating up precious market share at the pump, the fossil fuel industry will stop at nothing to maintain their monopoly. Of course, biofuels aren’t the only alternatives facing this kind of lopsided fight; wind and solar are only just now breaking the chokehold of the utility industry’s legacy players after more than three decades of struggle. We shouldn’t have to wait that long for renewable fuel.

One could argue it’s needed now more than ever. Climate change impacts have become more profound and urgent, rural communities are shedding jobs, and although oil prices are low today, they will continue to be unpredictable and it is only a matter of time before they rise again, subjecting the American pocketbook to geopolitical turmoil.

Nowhere is this more keenly understood than in Iowa, a corn state that prides itself on both agricultural innovation and developing alternatives to fossil fuels. And luckily, the Iowa caucuses provide an important mechanism to pull politicians away from the Washington bubble, out of earshot of the fossil fuel industry. After all, in Iowa, people matter more than big donors do. Once engrossed in true retail politics in diners and town halls, candidates can take a more rational look at the issue and talk to the thousands of men and women impacted by their decisions.

Outside Washington, especially in the rural communities buoyed by biofuels’ economic value, the tone is very different — one might say approaching unanimous. A newly released poll from America’s Renewable Future and DuPont suggests Iowa caucus-goers from both parties —  61 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats — would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate that supports the Renewable Fuel Standard and renewable fuels.

In fact, the Renewable Fuel Standard — which requires a certain amount of fuel produced each year to be made from renewable sources — is a clear winner for Iowa caucus-goers for a number of reasons: three-quarters of Republicans and 7 out of 8 Democrats surveyed cited greenhouse gas emissions reductions over gasoline as a reason to support the RFS. About nine out of ten voters in both parties approve of the strong job and wage benefits the RFS ensures for Iowa. And 86 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Democrats support the RFS for the hundreds of thousands of American jobs it supports across the United States as a whole.

It doesn’t take a political whiz kid to understand this phenomenon. The simple fact is that the renewable fuel industry supports some of Iowans’ biggest priorities: jobs, agriculture and a sustainable future.

As it happens, these benefits are set to expand tremendously with cellulosic ethanol, showcased at the end of October when DuPont opens the world’s largest cellulosic ethanol facility in central Iowa. Rather than processing corn kernels, the facility will create 30 million gallons of liquid renewable fuel from crop waste collected from within a 30-mile radius of the plant. This “biorefinery” reflects the forward thinking and entrepreneurship of Iowans and squarely puts the state in the bull’s-eye of the global advanced renewable fuel industry. It exemplifies both a pinnacle in human scientific achievement and the roll-up-your-sleeves hard work ethic of Iowa growers.

This facility will create 85 permanent jobs and 150 seasonal jobs for the collection, transport and storage of biomass. Second, it represents an entirely new revenue stream for the 500 farmers providing the cobs, stalks and leaves for feedstock. This biorefinery has also created a microcosm of technological and agricultural partnerships — from the companies developing custom farm equipment for feedstock collection to the government-academic collaboration to cultivate sustainable harvesting practices — that will only continue to grow and bear fruit in the coming years.

Finally — and most importantly — this represents a tremendous milestone in creating clean, renewable and homegrown fuel to power U.S. vehicles. (Of course it doesn’t hurt that we can export this technology to any agricultural economy in the world that also seeks to develop its own localized source of energy.)

Reasonable people in Iowa and across the country certainly don’t see a downside to the job creation, agricultural revitalization and energy independence renewable fuel provides. In fact, that’s a list of benefits members of both parties can certainly agree upon. Come election time, candidates would do well to remember just how important renewable fuels are to Iowans, and to so many Americans, who care about our environment, our economy and our energy security.

Patty Judge is co-chair of America’s Renewable Future and former lieutenant governor of Iowa.