Iowa Ag Summit tests GOP field on ethanol

Source: By Kathie Obradovich, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, March 9, 2015


Sometimes in politics, it’s better to be wrong than be seen as wishy-washy or weaselly.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, as expected, clearly and definitively told roughly 900 Iowans at the Iowa Ag Summit on Saturday that he opposes the Renewable Fuel Standard. He wasn’t booed, but it was the wrong answer in a state that leads the nation in ethanol production.

“I don’t think Washington should be picking winners and losers,” Cruz said. He said he believes in an all-of-the-above approach for energy, driven by markets.

The Renewable Fuel Standard sets a minimum volume of renewable fuel that must be blended into motor fuel. The Environmental Protection Agency is considering rolling back the volume, a move opposed by most Iowa elected officials.

Former New York Gov. George Pataki later doubled down on RFS opposition, saying he doesn’t believe the government should require anyone in America to buy anything. And then he compared the ethanol mandate to Obamacare. Ouch.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry reminded the crowd he sought a waiver from requirements of the mandate in 2008. He stood by the decision, saying it was the right one for Texas. But then he said he thinks the issue of market access for ethanol can be handled by states. That answer left some ethanol experts shaking their heads.

Cruz said he recognized the audience wanted to hear support for ethanol, and that’s an understatement. But his conservative supporters will respect him for giving a straight answer and sticking to his position, however unpopular.

Both Gov. Terry Branstad and Sen. Chuck Grassley had already been on stage to sing the praises of ethanol. Grassley even mangled a Campbell’s Soup jingle to proclaim ethanol is “good, good, good.” U.S. Rep. Steve King said later in the day the Renewable Fuel Standard is a “holy grail,” without which the petroleum industry would lock ethanol out of the market.

Former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, the only Democrat to speak at the summit, said she disagreed with all of the other speakers on almost every topic — except for those who called for keeping the federal ethanol mandate intact.

Most of the Republicans eyeing presidential runs in 2016 agreed. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were unequivocal in their support for the Renewable Fuel Standard. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the surprise highlights of the forum because of his humor, also supported the standard.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush praised the provision, saying it has worked as intended. However, he suggested the mandate, along with other renewable energy incentives, needs to eventually dry up. “And so at some point, you’ll see a reduction of the RFS need because ethanol will be such a valuable part of the energy feedstock for our country,” he said.

He did not specify how long he would keep the mandate on the books, but threw out 2022 as a possible date. It didn’t sound wholeheartedly supportive of the mandate, and some national media suggested his answer might displease Iowans. But Monte Shaw of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association took a more positive view.

“We have him in the good camp after today,” Shaw said of Bush. He said Bush’s reference to providing certainty until 2022 is significant, because that’s the year the RFS “basically ends.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also suggested that the RFS could eventually be phased out, but he was more assertive in arguing the mandate is still needed to ensure market access for ethanol.

The Iowa Ag Summit was more symposium than political rally. Instead of speeches, potential candidates sat for a series of interviews with host Bruce Rastetter. The crowd was attentive but not roaring with enthusiasm. The event offered a useful resource for those who wanted a side-by-side comparison of the candidates on this and other issues. Rastetter asked each potential candidate similar questions, although some could have been more probing than, “What do you think about wind?”

Huckabee had the best answer to that question: The country’s energy needs could be solved by harnessing the wind coming from Congress. There will be plenty of wind on the 2016 campaign trail, too. Iowa voters may not always like the way it’s blowing, but they will appreciate candidates who aren’t always sticking their finger up to test it.