Staff Columnist

Death, taxes and corn-based ethanol

A century or so ago, Iowa politicians would have been clinging to horses and decrying automobiles

DuPont Industrial Biosciences plant manager Joe Kilburg (left) presents Sen. Joni Ernst a vase of corn commemorating her
DuPont Industrial Biosciences plant manager Joe Kilburg (left) presents Sen. Joni Ernst a vase of corn commemorating her visit to the facility in southwest Cedar Rapids , Iowa, on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

At Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s confirmation hearing this month, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst had a singular concern — electric vehicles.

Iowa’s farm economy is heavily reliant on corn, and much of what we produce is processed into ethanol to meet the federal government’s biofuel mandates. But the industry is threatened by advances in electric vehicle technology, and Ernst wants to make sure the federal government keeps buying traditional vehicles, fueled with Iowa corn.

“Will you be directing USDA to purchase Tesla trucks that run on electricity, or will you be supporting our farmers and purchasing Ford F-150s that run on E85,” Ernst asked, referring to fuel with higher ethanol content.

Vilsack — a former Iowa governor now in his second stint as agriculture secretary after winning Senate confirmation — sought to quell Ernst’s anxiety over the future of ethanol. He’s a longtime ethanol booster and insists that both electric and biofuel vehicles should be part of the nation’s transportation portfolio.

“GM and Ford and all those other car companies aren’t going to stop producing combustion engines. … I don’t see why we can’t have both. Over a long period of time we’re going to need both,” Vilsack said.

Turns out, that was wrong by the time Vilsack said it. The week before, General Motors leaders announced they will transition to all zero-emission vehicles by 2035. Ford expects to go all-electric in Europe by 2030 and is bolstering its U.S. offerings as well. “The days of the internal combustion engine are numbered,” the New York Times reported.

Maybe Ernst, Vilsack and the rest of the Iowa political establishment haven’t gotten the memo: Corn-based ethanol is not a permanent fixture of Iowa’s economy or the nation’s fuel supply. It was never intended to be.

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The Renewable Fuel Standard was part of legislation signed by former President George W. Bush, meant to reduce auto emissions and limit the nation’s reliance on foreign fuel. The law requires a certain amount of biofuel to be blended with transportation fuel each year. It creates artificial demand for ethanol, which drives up the price of corn and incentivizes farmers to plant more of it.

Corn-based ethanol was pitched as a “bridge fuel,” meaning it’s a temporary solution until better technology is developed. Unfortunately, other methods — such as cellulosic ethanol, made from a plant’s fiber, rather than from its fruit and seeds — so far have not proven viable on a large scale.

As the economist Milton Friedman said, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

This year in the Iowa Legislature, Gov. Kim Reynolds is pushing a bill to require most fuel sold in Iowa to contain a minimum amount of ethanol, starting with E10 and increasing to E15. Those fuels already are widely available, but Reynolds’ proposal would make it difficult to find gas without ethanol.

The governor’s ethanol mandate would be a major giveaway to the ethanol industry, at the expense of retailers and consumers. Democratic leaders in the Statehouse also appear poised to support it.

Ethanol is seen as the third rail of Iowa politics, the one bring-home-the-bacon policy that Iowa politicians in both major parties are reluctant to touch. Former President Donald Trump earned bipartisan scorn from Iowa when his administration authorized waivers to allow oil refiners to miss their biofuel blending targets.

But it’s not obvious the people of Iowa care that much about this sacred cow. Ted Cruz won the 2016 Iowa GOP caucuses after campaigning against the RFS. Trump’s tinkering with the program didn’t seem to hurt him here.

Like few other issues, ethanol exposes politicians’ opportunistic and conniving nature. Republicans, supposedly champions of the free market, happily distort the market to protect their local interests. Democrats, supposedly committed to environmental science, conveniently look past the glaring negative impacts of mass corn production.

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Death and taxes are certain, according to Ben Franklin. But change is the only constant in life, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said. And when the world changes, you can count on powerful people to resist it.

When Iowans started acquiring automobiles in the late 1800s, the horse industry didn’t take kindly. Cars were mocked as a novelty, not a serious mode of transportation.

“Farmers were irate at the approach of a gas buggy, with its put-put, clackety-clack, and squawking bulb horn,” historian John Zug wrote in a 1962 edition of Annals of Iowa, preserved by the State Historical Society.

A century or so ago, Ernst and Reynolds might have been the people decrying newfangled automobiles and the threat they posed to horses. Vilsack and legislative Democrats might have cautiously embraced the horseless carriages, but insisted there was still a long-term need for equine transportation as well.

And they all would have been wrong. Within a few decades, cars won and horses lost. Sooner or later, corn-based ethanol will go the same way.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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