Editorial: Ethanol has been a boon for Iowa’s economy. But it’s time to pivot and figure out what’s next.

Source: By Editorial Board, Des Moines Register • Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2022

The state won’t be able to use its own laws and influence in Congress to perpetuate the “need” for biofuels forever. We have to find another way.

What one word do other Americans associate the most with 21st-century Iowa? The possible answers certainly include “ethanol.”

The biofuels research and production boom that took off in the 2000s was transformational for Iowa’s agricultural economy. Iowans could rightfully take pride in the farmers, agribusiness people, scientists and investors who built a homegrown industry that lessened the nation’s reliance on foreign oil.

Ethanol wasn’t a new idea, but large-scale use of corn for a domestically made gasoline blend meant huge new markets for crops and potential benefits for the environment. It also catalyzed hopes that research could produce even bigger things, such as cellulosic-ethanol production methods that could use plants grown on land not suitable for food production.

The largest ambitions haven’t been achieved, however, and biofuels’ warts have become only more prominent. That is hardly a revelation — scientists and other experts have pointed for years to such problems as overproduction’s devastating cost to water quality and the industry’s inability to wean itself from tax credits and other artificial incentives.

And now, it’s difficult to credibly dispute that electric vehicles are the “next big thing.”

But neither of the main political parties in Iowa is acting on that message. Rather than using the state’s pocketbook and policies to push for ideas on what should come next for the state’s farmland and biofuels workforce, Democrats and Republicans seem poised to make the first bill they send to Gov. Kim Reynolds this year a measure promoting biodiesel and requiring gas stations to install pumps that can dispense higher blends of ethanol.

Perhaps a case could be made that interfering in retailers’ market choices is worth the expense to help support farmers and producers during a transition away from an economy so reliant on biofuels. But that certainly wasn’t the message lawmakers delivered on the House floor and in the Senate Agriculture Committee this past week.

“House Democrats support renewable fuels, we always have, we always will, and we absolutely support Iowa’s ethanol industry,” said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, thanked President Joe Biden “for his commitment to renewable fuels.” Observers of Iowa’s presidential caucuses could be forgiven for concluding that ethanol is the only issue on which voters vet candidates.

“This bill is about doing what Iowans do, and that’s supporting Iowans,” said Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan. “It helps make corn and soybeans worth more dollars.”

“This suburban legislator is also proud to stand with Iowa farmers,” said Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights.

Ten representatives voted against House File 2128, seven Republicans and three Democrats. The Senate committee moved the bill forward without dissent.

Instead of tossing more eggs into the biofuels basket — including both this bill and the wrongheaded proposals to crisscross carbon pipelines all over the state — Iowa and its leaders would be better served to figure out what comes after ethanol.

The state won’t be able to use its own laws and influence in Congress to perpetuate the “need” for biofuels forever. We have to find another way.

Reynolds tweeted Thursday that Biden “is again pouring taxpayer dollars into EV charging stations while ignoring a readily-available renewable energy source grown here in IA. This is why we need increased access to E15.”

In 2007, we would have applauded her. In 2022, this sentiment is myopic. We need to pivot and, at the very least, talk about when and how to rip off the Band-Aid.

Numerous hard questions need answers. What can soften the blow of a seemingly inevitable reduction in demand for corn and soybeans? How can monocultured farmland be restored to greater soil health? How can we avoid falling into “greenwashing” traps and prioritize real environmental benefits over profit-making?

We’re confident Iowa’s farmers, agribusiness people, scientists and investors can think, work, experiment and innovate their way to finding the answers.

But Iowans cannot afford for their elected officials to avoid those questions in favor of propping up bottom lines until the bottom falls out.

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