National reporters take Iowa tour to learn about biofuels industry

Source: Written by Perry Beeman, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, August 12, 2013

BioCentury Research Farm manager Andy Suby gives a tour to reporters Thursday near Boone. They also visited other key biofuels facilities.

BioCentury Research Farm manager Andy Suby gives a tour to reporters Thursday near Boone. They also visited other key biofuels facilities. / Bryon Houlgrave/The Register

Ethanol interests locked in a bruising political battle in Congress over future aid for the industry sent a high-powered public-relations firm to Iowa to show national reporters some key biofuels facilities.

The likes of the Economist and PBS sent journalists for the four-day tour running from the ethanol-fueled race cars at Iowa Speedway to an Iowa State University bio-research facility near Boone to next-stage ethanol plants in Emmetsburg and Shenandoah. The reporters and photographers came at their companies’ expense for a tour that ran Wednesday through Saturday and was arranged by the Glover Park Group, which has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Fuels America, a coalition of biofuels interests, hired GPG for the project. The group includes DuPont, Monsanto and the Renewable Fuels Association.

GPG’s point person is familiar to Iowans: Jennifer Mullin, a former aide to Gov. Tom Vilsack. The Iowa native nudged reporters to visit the Iowa State Fair, which began its 11-day run Thursday.

Mullin acknowledged that her firm previously represented interests opposed to the Renewable Fuel Standard and other elements of the ethanol industry. She said she helped reverse that position over the past few years, in part by educating people on production agriculture techniques.

The timing of the Iowa trip — aside from the chance to let someone like Natasha Loder of the Economist’s Chicago office sample food on a stick — was all about Congress’ pitched debate on whether to extend the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS. The legislation requires a certain amount of fuel to contain biofuels.

“There is a pretty big fight going on in D.C. on the RFS,” Mullin said. The fight, in her opinion, has included a lot of false claims from oil interests and other parties opposed to ethanol. Many don’t realize that the standard is needed to wean the industry off corn so it can shift to other feedstocks such as corn stover, cobs or switchgrass, she added.

The tour was intended to give the journalists a chance to see both the corn production and the facilities making biofuels, Mullin said.

Loder said she came to examine a broader issue: rural development. “Bioenergy could be a very important part of rural development,” she said as she wrapped up a tour of an ISU research farm near Boone, where scientists study how to make fuel and oils out of corn stover, cobs and algae. “It has the potential to rebuild bits of the Midwest that have been gutted.”

Besides the Economist, the seven journalists represented the likes of PBS’s show “This American Land” and the online news outlet E&E News, which covers the environment and energy.