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Fight over ethanol hits Iowa campaign trail

Biofuel critics confront hopefuls courting rural support

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard gives her lei to Marissa Varner of Coralville after speaking Feb. 21 at The Mill in Iowa City. At the meet and greet, Gabbard was approached by an ethanol critic who told the presidential candidate that, contrary to popular belief, Iowans prefer to fight climate change with wind power, solar energy and land conservation. (KC McGinnis/freelance)
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard gives her lei to Marissa Varner of Coralville after speaking Feb. 21 at The Mill in Iowa City. At the meet and greet, Gabbard was approached by an ethanol critic who told the presidential candidate that, contrary to popular belief, Iowans prefer to fight climate change with wind power, solar energy and land conservation. (KC McGinnis/freelance)

Environmentalists are taking their case that corn-based ethanol is bad for the planet to the state that makes more of it than any other: Iowa.

They are bird-dogging presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker at rallies and town halls, trying to dissuade them from making politically convenient pro-ethanol pledges to get votes in corn country. Their message: biofuels are driving environmental harms, from disappearing wetlands to algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico.

As Democratic 2020 candidates flock to Iowa on this Fourth of July, biofuel foes are challenging conventional wisdom that ethanol support is untouchable in Iowa.

So far, their efforts aren’t working.

At least nine presidential candidates made pilgrimages to ethanol factories in Iowa so far this year — including President Donald Trump, who on June 11 visited the Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy facility near Council Bluffs.

Former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke toured the Big River Renewables ethanol plant in West Burlington two days after announcing his bid. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio praised biofuels in May as good for the planet at a POET Biorefining plant in Gowrie. On Tuesday, Rep. Tim Ryan stopped by the Golden Grain Energy ethanol facility near Mason City.

Showing love for ethanol is part of the political script in Iowa.

“You’ve got to get a picture in a cornfield, if you can find one, and you have to have the picture with an ethanol plant and then you’ve got to have the picture with the corn dog,” said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames.

For years, biofuel advocates have promoted the idea that backing ethanol is a litmus test for winning Iowa, site of the nation’s first presidential caucuses. That persists despite the 2016 Republican caucus victory of Ted Cruz, who criticized the U.S. biofuel mandate.

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Iowa produced 2.5 billion bushels of corn last year — with 62 percent of that going to make ethanol. And the state leads the nation in producing biodiesel, a renewable fuel typically made from soybeans. A biofuel trade group estimates the industry pumps some $5 billion into Iowa’s economy, or about 3 percent of the state’s GDP.

Biofuel foes view Iowa as the front lines of their fight. Campaign promises made here have a direct link to pro-biofuel policies in Washington, said Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive officer of Mighty Earth, a not-for-profit group that has activists in the state.

“Corn ethanol and soy biodiesel are even dirtier than dirty oil — and the path to building support for reform goes through Iowa,” Hurowitz said.

The National Wildlife Federation has armed presidential candidates with talking points crafted to help them prove they support rural America and corn farmers without endorsing ethanol at the same time.

“A lot of the candidates come in here assuming they have to talk about how great ethanol is because they think that’s what Iowans want to hear,” said Anya Fetcher, an activist who led Mighty Earth’s campaign in Iowa City. “It’s our chance to shape the narrative and let them know early on that it is important to talk about real climate solutions.”

Fetcher used that strategy with 2020 hopeful Tulsi Gabbard after a February “meet and greet” at an Iowa City restaurant. Fetcher wound around tables and through a throng of voters to reach Gabbard, and told the Hawaii Democrat that, contrary to popular belief, Iowans prefer to fight climate change with wind power, solar energy and land conservation.

“I am in complete alignment with what you are talking about,” Gabbard responded, her voice rising over the din in the bar as she stressed it’s important to ensure farmers aren’t hurt.

Mighty Earth had other, early successes, recording Warren saying she wants “better biofuels” and using video of Booker saying he supports ethanol to spur a follow-up conversation with his staff.

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The chairman of Washington-based Mighty Earth is former California Rep. Henry Waxman. The group’s Iowa biofuel initiative was partially underwritten by Jerry Jung, a former chief executive of heavy equipment dealer Michigan CAT who blames the biofuel mandate for declines in the Monarch butterfly population.

Federal and state agencies generally treat ethanol as a climate-friendly alternative to petroleum-based gasoline. California, for instance, approves ethanol under its aggressive low-carbon fuel standards.

Biofuel advocates dispute claims of rampant land changes to grow more corn and soybeans they say are based on flawed research. In the middle of an agricultural crisis, “farmers are trying to hold on to the land they have,” said Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council. “They’re not clearing more land. They’re trying to survive.”

The Trump administration gave the industry a major win by lifting restrictions limiting higher-ethanol E15 gasoline sales, but also has been criticized for exempting dozens of oil refineries from biofuel quotas.

Polling shows that supporting ethanol still helps in Iowa. In a March survey conducted for Focus on Rural America, 84 percent of likely Iowa caucus goers said they would be more inclined to back a candidate “who supports expanding production of renewable biofuels like ethanol and growing related jobs in rural communities.”

But ethanol isn’t a key issue for most voters. It’s consistently outranked by other concerns like health care, immigration and education.

Still, biofuel boosters are making appeals to Democratic candidates — and countering Mighty Earth’s campaign with one of their own.

They are inviting candidates to tour manufacturing facilities and circulating briefing memos.

“If they’re willing to learn and have a science discussion, then we’re going to be fine,” said Monte Shaw, head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “The facts are on our side.”

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