Conservative OK with government mandate — if it benefits corn

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2013

Iowa Rep. Steve King has been known throughout his decade in Congress for being one of the Republican Party’s most outspoken conservatives and biggest critics of government interference in the market.

But there’s one place that the six-term congressman is willing to embrace a government mandate: the corn ethanol industry. King said yesterday that he remains a staunch supporter of the renewable fuel standard, the federal policy that mandates yearly increasing amounts of biofuels that must be blended into the nation’s motor fuel supply.

“This hand has shaken the hand of the man who pumped the first ethanol in the United States,” he boasted at a National Journal event held yesterday in Washington, D.C.

King’s unwavering support for the ethanol industry’s mandate seemingly flies in the face of the free-market conservative mantra he espouses in other social and political issues.

But as with many lawmakers in matters of biofuels, politics tend to be geographical rather than ideological. Midwestern members of Congress tend to support the renewable fuel standard, while those in oil and livestock regions are pushing this year for its reform or repeal.

King’s district in northwestern Iowa is one of the biggest corn-producing regions in the country and home to some of the nation’s largest ethanol plants. Though not born into agriculture, he remembers the “terrible market prices” in the late 1970s and 1980s that forced many farmers out of business and the excitement that he felt at a 1983 energy exposition when he saw tractors powered by ethanol for the first time.

King said he balances his support for the renewable fuel standard and his conservative aversion to government mandates by the fact that the RFS has allowed ethanol producers to break into a market that is controlled by the petroleum industry.

“Yes, that is a mandate,” he said of the renewable fuel standard. “But it is a mandate that is written for the purposes of market access.”

Without the renewable fuel standard, the nation would operate under a de facto petroleum mandate in which almost all of the transportation fuel used would come from the oil industry, King said. While not critical of oil tax breaks, he said that all forms of energy should be allowed to compete with each other on an even keel.

The RFS is the “only thing that gives market access, so that corn and other product-based alternative fuels can get into the tank and sold into competition with petroleum,” he said. “If we lose that, then we have a government mandate, a federal mandate for petroleum-only in our vehicles.”

King is not the only Republican lawmaker from the Midwest to have crossed the ideological divide; Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has long been one of the upper chamber’s strongest supporters of ethanol and recently derided criticism against the alcohol fuel as “hogwash.”

While many Democrats have defended the renewable fuel standard because of its greenhouse gas reduction goals and its emphasis on building up the advanced biofuels sector, several in livestock and oil states have signed onto reform or repeal measures.

“I’m with oil all the way on this one,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who is co-sponsoring legislation to lower the standard’s requirements, at the same event yesterday.

Welch said dairy farmers in his district have suffered because of increased livestock feed prices linked to the higher ethanol production that the standard has spurred over the past few years.