Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Is Ernst playing both sides on ethanol?

Aaron Lehman is a fifth-generation family farmer from Polk County. He is president of the family farmer- and rancher-led
Aaron Lehman is a fifth-generation family farmer from Polk County. He is president of the family farmer- and rancher-led Iowa Farmers Union.
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The Iowa Farmers Union launched radio and online ads July 30 targeting Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, alleging she supports the fossil fuels industry.

Oil and gas are seen as rivals to renewable fuels — especially corn-based ethanol — and Iowa farming groups have been upset about politicians trying to provide aid to oil companies.

The Iowa Farmers Union is a Story County-based not-for-profit formed in 1915 that works to “strengthen the independent family farm” with a focus on sustainability, safe food and a clean environment, according to its website.

Graded a B

The group’s 30-second ad says COVID-19 has devastated Iowa’s rural economy: “Instead of helping us, Sen. Joni Ernst’s called for bailing out out-of-state fossil fuel corporations that have been polluting our air and trying to derail Iowa’s ethanol industry,” the ad claims. “Now she’s telling us that she wishes these dirty companies weren’t eligible for relief funds.”

Analysis

Claim 1: The first sentence includes three claims, but the Farmers Union provided sourcing for only the first one, the one about Ernst calling for “bailing out out-of-state fossil fuel corporations ...”

The Farmers Union points to an April 7 letter Ernst signed, along with 16 other Senate Republicans, to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell about use of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved by Congress in March.

The act made available up to $454 billion in loans and investments to programs or facilities approved by the Fed’s Board of Governors.

“Industries, like the energy and transportation sectors, are facing significant economic challenges as the demand for products and services have dropped with the constraints on the economy,” the letter stated. “We urge you to ensure that the financial relief offered under the CARES Act is fully available to companies throughout the economy.”

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The letter doesn’t mention oil or fossil fuels when it talks about “energy,” so this term also could include ethanol or other renewable fuels.

“Some outside groups have already advocated certain sectors of the economy be excluded from the loans made available under the CARES Act,” the letter stated. “Acquiescing to these demands would be contrary to Congressional intent and would arbitrarily harm certain American workers. Both are unacceptable.”

It’s true Ernst signed a letter that sought to keep all industries open for CARES funding. The letter didn’t specifically cite oil and gas, but is mostly accurate. Grade: B

Claim 2: The Farmers Union also says these companies are “polluting our air.”

An investigation by the Guardian and Documented showed among recipients of CARES Act funding were coal companies Hallador Coal, Rhino Resources and Ramaco Resources.

The National Institutes of Health says coal-fired power plants emit 84 of 187 hazardous pollutants identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as causing a risk to health.

“Hazardous air pollution released by coal-fired power plants can cause a wide range of health effects, including heart and lung diseases,” the NIH reported online. Grade: A

Claim 3: The claim about fossil fuel companies “trying to derail Iowa’s ethanol industry” is harder to verify and the Farmers Union did not provide a specific citation to support it.

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We know oil refiners have been fighting the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires refineries to either blend biofuels like ethanol into their fuel or buy credits from companies that do. The number of waivers has increased during the Trump administration — a trend Iowa’s elected officials, including Ernst, have been trying to halt.

Some ethanol companies have say these waivers and Trump’s trade battle with China have crippled the industry.

“Some plants will slow down, some will shut down, some will shut down forever,” Todd Becker, chief executive officer of Green Plains, an Omaha-based ethanol producer, told Reuters in 2019. Some northwest Iowa corn processing plants temporarily shut down last fall because of a lack of demand, the Sioux City Journal reported.

It’s clear Iowa’s ethanol industry is hurting, with the pain caused by several factors including waivers and now the derecho that damaged 3.5 million acres of corn, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said.

But what isn’t clear is whether the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to save itself count as “trying to derail Iowa’s ethanol industry.” The Farmers Union did not provide examples of specific efforts by oil and gas companies to attack the industry in Iowa, although because Iowa produces more corn than any other state, an overall hit on ethanol affects Iowa. We find this claim to be half true. Grade: C.

Claim 4: The last claim the Fact Checker will score says Ernst, who signed the letter asking for fossil fuels firms to get CARES funding, “now she’s telling us that she wishes these dirty companies weren’t eligible for relief funds.”

This statement is based on a June 30 interview Ernst did with Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman that was broadcast on Facebook live. Lehman asks Ernst about five minutes and 35 seconds into the interview whether fossil fuel companies should be eligible for the relief funds.

“I’d rather they weren’t,” Ernst said, adding that if they weren’t, there would be more money available for farmers and agriculture.

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Ernst didn’t call the fossil fuels firms “dirty companies,” but otherwise the claim is a pretty accurate representation of what she said. Grade: The Farmers Union gets an A here.

Conclusion

The Farmers Union is one of the more left-leaning ag groups in Iowa, but farmers still are a pretty conservative bunch overall. The fact the group is running attack ads against Ernst, an incumbent Republican, shows how strongly members feel about protecting Iowa’s ethanol industry. The ad is correct Ernst signed on to a request that all companies be considered for CARES funds, then told the Farmers Union June 30 she wished fossil fuel companies weren’t eligible.

Of the four claims we checked, the Farmers Union got two As, a B and a C. This averages out to a B.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.

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