Ethanol Burning Out in Politics
25 November 2013
[UMRA Note: ethanol is generally though to have
deleterious effects on marine engine life.]
ALTOONA, Iowa (AP) - For decades, presidential candidates'
chances in Iowa were wounded if not doomed unless they backed
federal support for ethanol, a boon to the state's corn-growing
That rule of politics collapsed resoundingly in the 2012 campaign
when five of the six top Republican candidates said it was time
for such intervention in the private market to end.
Now, Iowa's senior political leaders are pondering how to shore up
political support for the corn-based fuel at a time when its
economic and environmental benefits are under attack .
The latest blow came this month, when the Obama administration
proposed cutting the required amount of ethanol in the nation's
fuel supply for the first time since Congress established a
standard in 2007.
The state's leading Republicans and Democrats hope they can still
use Iowa's political importance as a swing-voting state and as the
site of the first presidential nominating contest to get
candidates to support keeping the requirement, or at least part of
it, in place.
But the case has become a tough sell for Republicans as the party
has moved to the right and become increasingly hostile to
government programs and directives.
Even among many Democrats, concern has grown about ethanol's role
in rising food prices and in cultivation of land that had been
used for conservation.
The recent boom in domestic oil production has also made ethanol
less prized as a U.S.-produced fuel that limits dependence on
foreign oil. The grain alcohol burns cleaner than gasoline but
produces less energy.
"I think there are some that feel it's potentially safer now to be
lukewarm at least, or not supportive of it," said Iowa's Secretary
of Agriculture Bill Northey, a Republican. "I think it's yet to be
seen if that's a smart political position."
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said he hopes to thwart the
administration's proposal in Congress if it survives the 60-day
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad planned to press his
fellow GOP governors, especially those with possible presidential
aspirations, to be mindful of the ethanol industry's economic
importance. He met with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a
governors' association meeting in Arizona this week. On Tuesday,
Branstad launched a Website for people to leave comments for the
For politicians eying the White House, "Whoever comes here better
understand the importance of renewable fuels, or they are going to
have hell to pay in rural Iowa," Branstad said in a recent
The federal government began actively supporting ethanol, which is
made by fermenting and distilling corn, about 40 years ago when
petroleum prices spiked and anti-air pollution efforts were
ramping up. Refineries initially were given a tax credit to
produce the grain alcohol and Congress later required oil
companies to blend it in their gasoline.
In Iowa, the nation's leading corn producer, about 45 percent of
its crop went into ethanol last year. The state has 42 ethanol
plants that produced 3.8 billion gallons.
Branstad said cutting the federal requirement would lower corn
prices that have already fallen this year because of an
unexpectedly robust harvest.
"They're making a huge mistake," Branstad said at the governors
conference this week. "And they're going to drive corn below the
cost of production."
Democrat Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa City said a loss of federal
support would be "a devastating decision for Iowa's farmers, rural
communities and economy."
If the federal mandate was reduced or ended, ethanol producers
would rely on the handful of states with their own ethanol fuel
standards, and on exports which accounted for about 1 billion
gallons last year. The proposed change would likely hurt smaller
producers more than powerhouses like Archer Daniels Midland and
Ethanol supporters insist the federal requirement is still
justified even though the U.S. reliance on foreign oil is
dropping, and for the first time in two decades, the U.S. produces
more crude oil than it imports.
"We use 10-percent of ethanol in the gasoline in our cars. Do you
want to import another 10 percent of oil" Grassley said. "No, you
While oil companies are pushing to escape the ethanol mandate,
environmental groups are growing concerned about the impact of
increased corn production. Farmers planted 15 million more acres
of corn last year than a decade ago, according to an Associated
Press analysis, taking land out of conservation use and applying
more pesticides and herbicides.
Years ago, "there was a strong argument for encouraging the use of
available resources like corn, for ethanol. Those days have
passed," Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said in a
In a sign of ethanol's eroding political support, the winner of
the 2012 Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum, called during his campaign
for phasing out the federal mandate.
The prospects for support in the possible 2016 presidential field
are uncertain. About a week ago, Branstad brought up ethanol
support privately with 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan
before the Wisconsin representative headlined a Branstad campaign
Ryan declined to comment publicly on the EPA's ethanol proposal.
A spokeswoman for Christie also declined to comment on Christie's
position. Among possible Democrat candidates, neither Clinton nor
Vice President Joe Biden has commented publicly about the issue