Joe Biden’s ethanol push to woo Iowa farmers sets up tension with environmentalists

Source: By Alexandra Ellerbeck, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, September 16, 2020

President Trump and Joe Biden are both tripping over themselves to appeal to Iowa farmers in the final stretch of the 2020 race — by promising steadfast support for corn-based fuel.

That’s a potentially risky political move at a time when the Democratic nominee is also trying to energize young voters passionate about climate change.

Many environmentalists blame federal policies aimed at supporting biofuels for a rapid expansion in agriculture over the past decade, a transformation they say destroyed delicate habitats and resulted in more emissions.

Corn-based ethanol, said Lukas Ross of the Friends of the Earth, has been “a monumental failure.”

“The mandated blending of biofuels in our fuel supply has turned out to be a climate flop,” he added.

Yet Biden’s Iowa surrogates are actively playing up his commitment to ethanol in campaign events in recent weeks.

Biden himself made one of his strongest statements in support of biofuels last month, promising his administration would “promote and advance renewable energy, ethanol, and other biofuels to help rural America and our nation’s farmers.”

And on Tuesday, Biden attacked Trump’s record on ethanol, calling the president’s recent moves to support the biofuel industry transparently political in a statement to Reuters. “Lip service 50 days before an election won’t make up for nearly four years of retroactive damage that’s decimated our trade economy and forced ethanol plants to shutter,” he said.

Trump announced this week that he is siding with the ethanol industry in a dispute with oil companies over the volume of biofuels in gasoline, a move probably aimed at shoring up his rural base.

Biden has to strike a delicate balance: He’s moved to the left on environmental issues since his nomination, but at the same time has tried to avoid alienating core industries in key swing states. He has promised not to ban fracking in Pennsylvania, for instance. Now he’s playing up his support for ethanol in states such as Iowa, which went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 but looks much closer in 2020, and Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016.

The debate over biofuels is evolving.

The biofuels industry claims that a 2005 law, which allows the Environmental Protection Agency to set targets for the volume of biofuels that oil refineries mix into their gasoline, has supported farmers and helped the country become more energy independent.

Yet many environmental groups say that the law spurred farmers to unnecessarily plow over millions of acres of grassland. As they envision a future with roads filled with electric vehicles, other environmentalists find a debate about the proper proportions of liquid fuel to be backward-looking.

Scott Faber, the senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said that, while some biofuels made from agricultural waste or algae are more energy-efficient than traditional ethanol, the biofuel industry “lost their chance to be a low-carbon alternative” by lobbying against stronger emissions standards.

“‘Second generation’ fuels could still reach commercial scale and provide some benefits in the short run,” he added, “but liquid fuels should be increasingly seen as a dead end in light of the rapid adoption of electric vehicles.”

Not every environmental group is so quick to write off ethanol.

“Does ethanol have a place? Absolutely,” said Jeremy Martin, the director of fuels policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Ethanol is a big part of our transportation fuel mix today and it’s a big part of our agriculture system.”

Martin argued that ethanol has gotten cleaner over time and can make further progress with reductions in emissions on the agricultural side and at the refinery level. Even if the economy eventually moves to electric vehicles, he said, biofuels could still be important in aviation.

Biden has faced more backlash for his refusal to support a fracking ban than his position on biofuels.

This could be because environmentalists want the government to encourage drivers to adopt electric vehicles and leave gasoline and biofuels behind. Plus, just about every other Democratic candidate for president shared Biden’s pro-ethanol position.

Biden’s opening for a rural pitch could narrow if Trump shores up his base.

Biden’s renewed appeal on the biofuels issue came as many farmers were frustrated with the Trump administration over everything from trade-war policies to biofuels, potentially giving the Democratic nominee an opening to play for rural voters.

Under the Trump administration, the number of waivers given out to oil refiners — giving them a pass on the biofuel requirements — has quadrupled, even as the EPA has delayed a decision over where to set mandated biofuel volumes for the coming year until after the election.

Earlier this week, Trump instructed the EPA to deny dozens of requests from oil refiners for waivers from the biofuel standard.

It’s a move that farmers and the biofuels industry have been pushing for, and it’s one that could not only bolster Trump, but also help Republicans in a heated Senate race.

First-term Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) is in the middle of what is shaping up to be one of the closest 2020 Senate races as she faces off against challenger Theresa Greenfield, who has attacked her opponent for voting to nominate EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, perceived by many in the state as favoring oil interests over biofuel.

Ernst made repeated appeals for the president to intervene on behalf of the ethanol industry. Ernst triumphantly tweeted this week that the administration “heeded my calls.”