116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As a native Iowan and a journalist since the 1990s, I’ve been marinating in ethanol for most of my life, or, at least, the politics of ethanol.
The latest chapter came this week as Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill requiring gas stations to offer E15 in at least one pump by 2026. Reynolds called farmers and renewable fuel producers “the economic backbone of our state.” The bill passed with broad support from both majority Republicans and minority Democrats.
It was a victory for corn-based ethanol. But when has ethanol ever lost in Iowa?
The federal government mandates a market for ethanol-blended fuel. President Joe Biden came to Iowa to announce plans to allow sales of E15 during summer months when it’s normally not allowed due to the fuel’s contribution to smog. The state has piled on incentives and tax credits and now the mandated sale of E15. Government action has propped up this industry for 40 years.
Soon, state utility regulators may allow backers of massive pipeline projects pumping carbon from ethanol plants into underground storage to take private land through eminent domain. Billions of dollars in federal tax credits will back this effort to make ethanol look more climate friendly.
Presidential candidates campaigning to win the Iowa caucuses have pledged allegiance to corn fuel again and again. Gov. Chet Culver wanted to make Iowa the “energy capital of the United States,” or maybe the world. Gov. Tom Vilsack loved corn so much he switched his official vehicles to E85 and wore socks made from corn fiber when he walked across Iowa.
What started with “gasohol” being sold in five Iowa gas stations in the late 1970s now devours 1.5 billion bushels of corn annually, or 57 percent of the state’s corn crop.
Reynolds called ethanol “environmentally friendly.” But is it, really?
A University of Wisconsin study released this year argued that growing and producing ethanol creates more earth-warming carbon than gasoline, due mostly to the fact that corn production expanded by 6.9 million acres between 2008 and 2016. Ethanol backers have pounced on the study, citing a pile of research insisting ethanol has a far smaller carbon footprint than gasoline.
Carbon sequestration through pipelines will make it even better, backers contend. Seems like we should have more than the industry’s word before we seize land and hand out billions of dollars in tax credits. But what the industry wants, the industry gets in Iowa.
And we’ve put all our chips on ethanol while doing next to nothing about the environmental damage caused by the intensive corn farming the industry demands. Iowa waterways are polluted by nitrates and phosphorus running off cropland, stoking toxic algae blooms and creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Not so “friendly” for the shrimpers.
If our leaders really wanted to make ethanol greener, they would support requiring farmers to stop growing corn on frequently flooded ground, start growing buffers along waterways, apply fertilizer according to reasonable guidelines and adopt other basic conservation practices. But neither Republicans nor most Democrats will touch the issue of regulations with a 10-foot cornstalk. The mere mention drains their political courage as efficiently as a tile line.
So, instead, we get government-sponsored ethanol and government-sponsored pollution. That’s what our politicians call a win-win.
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