Democrats race to embrace biofuels in lead-up to Iowa

Source: by Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 7, 2019

In 2016, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz proved a presidential candidate could win in Iowa while opposing ethanol mandates. So far, the crowded Democratic field isn’t willing to take the same gamble.

Instead, Democrats seeking to unseat President Trump next year are embracing ethanol as a way to address climate change and protect the environment.

It’s a strained position, said Frank Maisano, a principal at Bracewell LLP, considering environmental groups have soured on the policy.

Furthermore, the Green New Deal supported by some candidates envisions vehicles fueled by electricity, not ethanol, which is derived mainly from corn grown with the aid of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“It creates a bit of a problem for them,” said Maisano, who noted that he sees a contradiction in candidates saying they support the renewable fuel standard (RFS) program but want to phase out mobile fuels. “I think that creates a big challenge.”

In Iowa, farming is largely about corn, and corn is largely about ethanol. More than half — 53% — of corn grown in Iowa is used for ethanol, according to the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Renewable fuels production, including biodiesel, supports about 42,000 jobs and generate $4.7 billion in economic activity, the association said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is the most outspoken advocate of the Green New Deal, having co-sponsored the proposal. Her campaign told E&E News that farmers are on the front lines of climate change, for both mitigating and weathering the effects.

The proposal is based on the idea that no one, including farmers, gets left behind as the nation deals with the changing climate, says the campaign.

“Climate change is an existential threat and we need every tool to defeat it. Renewables are part of our climate solution,” the campaign said in a statement.

With the politics of ethanol as volatile as ever — and changes in the RFS likely during the next administration — the candidates’ positions on biofuel may be under a closer microscope this cycle.

In 2022, the congressionally set biofuel volumes in the RFS law expire, leaving EPA the authority to change it. Industry groups on both sides of the debate are looking for indications about how ethanol-friendly the next administration may be.

In addition, the Trump administration is caught up in fights over the biofuel-blending exemptions given to small refineries in cases of economic hardship, which have increased sharply during Trump’s presidency.

Democratic candidates have seized on that issue to criticize Trump in Iowa, although EPA has said the exemptions are dictated by law.

Various viewpoints

Ethanol backers launched Biofuels Vision 2020, a coalition that tracks candidates’ comments on the RFS and ethanol policy, as well as posts videos and news articles.

The site features Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) telling a questioner in Afton, Iowa, that he supports the RFS as a way to help rural economies, Warren bashing the administration for granting RFS exemptions to small refineries, and former Vice President Joe Biden talking to a group of voters about his proposal to spend $400 million on research into clean energy alternatives, including ethanol. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, at a meet-and-greet on June 14, tells voters he’s committed to strengthening the RFS.

Biden, in his plan for rural America, promotes biofuels without mentioning the RFS by name. “As part of this effort, developing the next generation of biofuels will be a top priority,” the document says.

“The Biden Plan will invest in research to develop cellulosic biofuels in a manner that protects our soil and water and addresses the challenge of climate change, while turning grass, crop residues, and other biomass into fuel,” it says.

Andrew Bates, a Biden spokesman, added in a statement to E&E News: “By doubling down on our national renewable fuel standard obligations and implementing stronger, bolder commitments that invest in ethanol and biofuels, we can loosen big oil’s grip on our nation while spurring economic growth in areas hard-hit by Trump’s trade war.”

The ethanol site also captures an interview on WHO TV in Des Moines, Iowa, in February, in which Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) put a caveat on his support for ethanol: Eventually, he said, electric vehicles will replace those running on liquid fuels. “It’s not a matter of if,” he said. “It’s when.”

“Right now, I support E15 year-round. I support ethanol,” Booker said on the posted interview, referring to fuel that’s 15% ethanol and was recently made available year-round. “We’ve got to support our farmers.”

Iowa isn’t the only state where ethanol matters politically, said Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. In Michigan and Ohio, among others, their positions could make a difference, he said. “I don’t think they immediately forget those issues the minute they leave Iowa,” Cooper said.

Increased engagement

With the need to promote their party’s environmental message as well as support for rural areas, Democratic candidates risk being seen as simply trying to placate ethanol groups and corn farmers ahead of the primaries, Maisano said, despite evidence from Cruz’s experience that opposing the RFS isn’t a political death sentence.

In Cruz’s case, he staked a position against the mandate — calling for repeal of the RFS — but said he supported ethanol as a fuel choice and wanted to find ways to expand markets, such as allowing fuels with more ethanol greater market access.

Cruz was walking a political tightrope, too, said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association and a political veteran of the state. Shaw ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for a U.S. House seat in 2014, losing the nomination to David Young, who went on to serve two terms before losing reelection in 2018.

After Cruz said he opposed the RFS, “he spent lots of time telling people he liked ethanol,” said Shaw, whose group had members at many Cruz town hall sessions then. “He understood he had to put a different face on.”

Although Cruz won the Iowa caucuses, he did so with a plurality; the majority of votes were cast for candidates who were supportive of the RFS, Shaw noted.

This presidential cycle, Shaw said, “the Democrats seem to want to do better in rural areas.” In the general election, winning rural counties isn’t always necessary — just turning them less red would help win the state, he added.

“They want to reach out to rural areas. This is jobs in rural areas, but it’s also cleaner air in cities,” Shaw said.

Shaw said it’s refreshing to see Democratic candidates engaging on ethanol issues at all, even if their comments aren’t very specific about the RFS. None of the Democratic candidates have come out publicly in favor of repealing the RFS, but in comments, they’ve tended to be broadly supportive of ethanol, rather than tout the RFS specifically.

That’s in contrast to the 2016 campaign, when Democrats talked about advanced biofuels — which often means fuel made with feedstocks other than corn — rather than ethanol, Shaw said.

“Four years ago, we couldn’t get Hillary Clinton to say anything other than ‘advanced biofuel,'” Shaw said. “We feel really good about the level of engagement.”