Scott Walker will be expected to take a stand on ethanol for Iowa push

Source: By Patrick Marley and Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Posted: Monday, February 2, 2015

Environmentalist Craig Cox, a critic of the government’s support of ethanol, looks at a corn field near Ames, Iowa, in 2013.

Associated Press. Environmentalist Craig Cox, a critic of the government’s support of ethanol, looks at a corn field near Ames, Iowa, in 2013.

Walker has dodged stating his views on the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal program that requires transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel, which in practice is usually ethanol made from corn.

The GOP governor has declined to take a position, saying last year he wanted to strike a “careful balance” on the issue that — when higher amounts of ethanol are proposed — pits grain farmers and the ethanol industry against other interests, including Milwaukee engine manufacturer Briggs & Stratton Co. and the outdoor power equipment industry.

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said it was “inconceivable” that Walker or others could campaign in Iowa without saying whether they support the federal standard.

“He’s going to get asked that question a lot,” Shaw said.

Walker acknowledged last week he would have to get off the fence — if he runs.

“That’s something that, should I be a candidate in the future, I probably would have to take a stand. But I’m not right now,” he told reporters Wednesday after addressing the Chippewa Valley Rally at a Madison hotel.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency missed a deadline to update the Renewable Fuel Standard. It had proposed cutting by 3 billion gallons, or almost 18%, the amount of ethanol in the U.S. fuel supply.

Critics of ethanol say a glut in oil production has made the biofuel additive less important as an alternative to foreign oil. Also, as vehicles become more fuel efficient, Americans are using less gasoline than they did eight years ago when the government expanded the standard.

Almost all gasoline sold in the U.S. contains 10% ethanol. Supporters of the biofuel additive have pushedfor increasing the percentage, but the petroleum industry and engine makers have argued against it.

Briggs & Stratton, the world’s largest manufacturer of small gasoline engines, opposes ethanol levels above 10% because of the possible harm to small engines.

The problems could include engine overheating, fuel line ruptures, a breakdown of rubber pieces in fuel systems, expensive repairs and engine failure not covered by warranty.

By federal law, consumers are prohibited from using gasoline with more than 10% ethanol in older vehicles or small engines. But given that higher blends are cheaper, some people will choose the wrong fuel and damage an engine, said Laura Timm, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Briggs.

Since the introduction of 15% ethanol in gasoline, known as E15, “we have seen higher warranty claims,” Timm said, but misfueling isn’t covered by a manufacturer’s warranty.

Walker joined numerous other potential GOP presidential candidates at a forum last week in Des Moines and promised attendees he would come back to Iowa “many more times.”

His speech there was well received, and a Des Moines Register poll over the weekend showed him leading — but narrowly — among GOP caucus-goers.

He has been invited — along with dozens of others from both parties — to attend the Iowa Ag Summit on March 7. The fuel standard is to feature prominently at the event, where candidates will address voters and be questioned about agriculture issues.

Walker said he was aware of the event but was not sure whether he would attend.

“I think it would be a disadvantage in Iowa to not support the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said. “We have shown this makes sense for the environment, for the economy, for jobs, for farm income.”

One of the March 7 event’s sponsors is America’s Renewable Future, a new group aimed at encouraging presidential candidates to support the Renewable Fuel Standard. It will spend the coming months talking to candidates and will likely eventually run ads in Iowa telling voters where they stand.

Eric Branstad — the state director for America’s Renewable Future and the son of the Iowa governor — noted the Republicans who performed best in the 2012 Republican caucus, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, supported the Renewable Fuel Standard. Two who performed near the bottom, then-U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, did not.

Eric Branstad said voters in the nation’s corn capital would seek to pin down candidates on the issue.

“They’re going to be asking those questions at every town hall, at every coffee shop, at every forum,” he said. “We will hold their feet to the fire.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has come out firmly against the standard, even if it may hurt his likely presidential bid in Iowa. He told reporters he thought Iowa voters would appreciate that he had firmly held beliefs and doesn’t change his message depending on whom he is addressing.

Shaw, of the Iowa biodiesel group, noted some of Iowa’s most conservative Republicans, such as U.S. Reps. Steve King and Rod Blum, support the renewable fuel standard. He said he expected a number of GOP presidential candidates to back the measure.

“I think there’s going to be a large chunk of caucus-goers who will use RFS to winnow the field,” he said. “There will be a number of candidates on the nice list. They’ll be able to find candidates from that list that check their other boxes.”

Walker’s 2006 stand

Walker first ran for Wisconsin governor in 2006 but dropped out before the Republican primary was held. Before getting out, he ran a radio ad saying he opposed legislation then pending that would have required all mid-grade gasoline in Wisconsin to include 10% ethanol. The measure did not pass.

In a statement at the time, Walker said, “It is clear to me that a big government mandate is not the way to support the farmers of this state.”

“The free enterprise system must drive innovation to relieve our dependence on foreign oil, not mandates from the state or federal government,” Walker’s 2006 statement said.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association, which represents boating industry interests such as Mercury Marine, a Fond du Lac maker of marine engines, says it favors an amendment to the Keystone XL Pipeline legislation that would abolish the corn ethanol mandate in the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Briggs says it would support that amendment as well, but some other change to the standard is more likely to get through Congress.

The company supports legislation from U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Menomonee Falls Republican, that would revoke the current government approval for E15 until the fuel undergoes more testing in an independent scientific analysis.

Briggs and other engine makers say they need to know, in advance, what the fuel standard is going to be so they can design their products to accommodate it. They also want to be part of the decision-making process that affects millions of engines already in the marketplace.

“With emissions regulations, we usually have an opportunity to sit down with the EPA and chart a course for the future. Until we have an opportunity to do that, it’s very difficult for us to prepare for an uncertain marketplace. It can be very costly,” Timm said.

The engine makers lost court challenges aimed at blocking the implementation of E15 but say they’re not against the 10% ethanol blend and biofuels. They’ve tested isobutanol as a fuel additive, for example, and said those test results were encouraging.

Fuel dispensers selling E15 have a warning label to not use it in small engines and older vehicles. But the Association for Consumer Research found that warning labels are less effective when applied to products that people use frequently and are comfortable with, such as gasoline pumps.

“The only (gas pump) label we think consumers really look at is the price. That’s the problem,” said Dan Ariens, president and CEO of Ariens Co., a Brillion-based manufacturer of outdoor power equipment including snow throwers and garden tractors.

“We are not anti-ethanol. We can live with E10 (a 10% blend), but when it pushes into 15%, it does cause a lot of problems,” said Ariens.

Ethanol backers agree that E15 shouldn’t be used in engines where it’s not intended. But they say the risk of misfueling has been overblown in an effort to scare people from using it altogether.

Ariens is also a board member of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, an organization that represents the manufacturers and opposed the introduction of E15. Walker appointed Ariens to serve on the board of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the state’s flagship job-creation agency.