Push to make ethanol a player in presidential race

Source: By Christopher Doering, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, November 30, 2015

WASHINGTON — Iowa’s billion-dollar ethanol industry is turning up the heat on presidential candidates — trying to leverage support as the EPA prepares to release a new renewable fuel policy that could be critical to the alternative fuel’s viability.

America’s Renewable Future, a bipartisan political group backed by top Iowa elected officials and people in agriculture and the ethanol industry, is in the midst of a million-dollar ad campaign to exert pressure on candidates ahead of the Iowa caucuses, supporting candidates who back the Renewable Fuel Standard and criticizing those who denounce it. The standard sets how much ethanol and other renewable fuels must be blended into gasoline.

But just how much pressure industry supporters will be able to apply is open to debate. Some political experts question whether ethanol still carries the clout it once wielded on the campaign trail in the country’s top ethanol-producing state.

“For a candidate to go into Iowa meant you had to support the (country’s ethanol mandate),” said Matt Dempsey, a spokesman with the Center for Regulatory Solutions, a group opposed to excessive government regulations. “That is clearly no longer the case.”

Still, presidential candidates remain mindful of the influence of ethanol in Iowa politics.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who voted for sugar subsidies but has been reticent about the Renewable Fuel Standard, issued a statement Tuesday saying he would support continuing the standard — as long as other subsidies continue as well. Last week, the Register had reported that ethanol industry leaders were pressing Rubio to support their industry with the same vigor he has shown in backing sugar subsidies.

Even so, local and national political experts question how much sway ethanol will have in a presidential race where national security, the economy and immigration have dominated the national conversation.

Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University, said the Renewable Fuel Standard has been relegated to a bit part on the presidential stage so far.

“All the events I’ve been to, it has been a relatively minor issue, if it’s popped up at all,” he said.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor, estimates that a candidate’s stance on ethanol will help decide “a few hundred” votes during the Iowa caucuses in February. The high-water mark for participation is about 240,000 for the Democratic caucuses and 121,000 for the Republicans.

“I just find it hard to believe that even in Iowa you will have a lot of people basing their vote on that,” he said. “It’s a pretty minor issue, compared to the other things the country is dealing with.”

Where candidates stand

When George W, Bush was running for president in 1999, he announced his support for ethanol during a debate in Iowa.

In the 2016 campaign, his brother Jeb has called for phasing out the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Presidential contenders such as Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders say they support the standard.

Ben Carson has said recently he supports eliminating all government subsidies, including ethanol.

Applying the pressure

Ethanol supporters say it would be unwise for candidates to discount the industry’s influence.

Patty Judge, co-chair of America’s Renewable Future and a former Iowa agriculture secretary, said the group has signed up 45,000 people who have pledged to look closely at how the candidates stand on the Renewable Fuel Standard when they vote in the Iowa caucuses.

The group recently released a report card showing where candidates stand on the mandate.

“That could change the dynamic; that could determine the winner or loser, in my opinion, of the caucuses,” Judge said. “Beyond the caucuses here in Iowa next February, we’re not going away or being silent … we’re going to continue to be talking and trying to keep this on the front burner and make certain voters across the country understand the importance.”

Congress has been under pressure by non-Midwest lawmakers, oil groups and others to overhaul or repeal the Renewable Fuel Standard. The most common change centers on eliminating the corn portion of the ethanol mandate, responsible for the lion’s share of production of ethanol in Iowa and nationwide.

Iowa is the nation’s largest ethanol producer, churning out 3.9 billion gallons in 2014.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed cutting the amount of ethanol that must be blended into the nation’s fuel supply next year below what Congress required in the 2007 law.

The agency says the change is necessary to address the blend wall — a threshold that occurs when the required blending volume exceeds the amount that can be added into most gasoline. A final decision is expected by the EPA this month.

Ethanol backers have warned that unless Obama boosts the mandate to what Congress intended, or higher, the White House risks hurting its party ahead of the 2016 election. They point out Obama’s prior support for the Renewable Fuel Standard and his efforts to battle climate change.

“Support for the RFS also resonates particularly well with self-identified moderates and split-ticket voters who are the voters that make the difference in close races,” Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, recently told reporters.”If the president makes the wrong decision he is likely to do an awful lot of damage to his candidates because even if they are strong supporters the other party is going to say, ‘Look what your boss is doing, look what your president is doing.‘”

The Democratic influence

Those who follow both sides of the ethanol debate agree it’s likely to have a more noticeable impact on Democrats than Republicans going into next fall, although party activists’ opinions about the fuel are split.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, deputy director of the clean energy program at Third Way, a think tank founded by former staffers of the Bill Clinton administration, said the party is going to have some tough congressional races. While the Renewable Fuel Standard is unlikely to determine the outcome of an election, he said, it could “provide a nudge in the right direction” in some key races.

“This is a low-risk risk move for Democrats because there are some rewards. It’s not a magical elixir, but the potential pitfalls are very small,” he said.

But Dempsey, with the Center for Regulatory Solutions, said there is a growing fissure within the Democratic Party on ethanol, especially as more emphasis is put on climate change.

Opponents of corn-based ethanol have argued it is worse for the environment than gasoline — a fact vigorously disputed by the renewable fuels industry.

“The more that climate change is ramped up as an issue in the Democratic primary, the more difficult corn ethanol becomes for the Democrats,” Dempsey said. “If you are strongly in support of climate change but continue to support efforts to back corn ethanol, it shows you’re not serious about it.”