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Will ethanol fuel caucus voters in corn country Iowa?

January 28, 2016 at 6:30 PM EST
Ethanol took center stage in Iowa last week when Gov. Terry Branstad urged voters not to support Sen. Ted Cruz, who wants to repeal the mandate that ethanol be blended into most types of gasoline. Special correspondent David Biello of The Scientific American lays out the political stakes for candidates who oppose the Renewable Fuel Standard.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now we turn to the politics of corn.

The issue of ethanol briefly took center stage in Iowa last week, when Governor Terry Branstad declared caucus-goers should choose anyone but Senator Ted Cruz for president.

Cruz has promised to repeal the law that requires ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply.

David Biello is the senior energy and environment editor with “Scientific American,” and he is working with Detroit Public Television on a documentary about ethanol that will air this fall.

He reports for us from Iowa.

DAVID BIELLO: Pocahontas, Iowa, one of the many small-town stops on Senator Ted Cruz’s bus tour.

Cruz is being followed by an R.V., calling him out for his opposition to ethanol. This shadow campaign comes courtesy America’s Renewable Future, a pro-ethanol group.

WOMAN: Good morning.

MAN: Hi.

WOMAN: Here’s some information on Iowa’s economy.

WOMAN: Thank you.

WOMAN: Yes. Thanks.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), Republican Presidential Candidate: Because I don’t believe Washington should pick winners or losers, I believe we should end the RFS and phase it out over five years.

DAVID BIELLO: The Renewable Fuel Standard, the RFS, was created by Congress 10 years ago. It’s regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and requires 10 percent ethanol to be blended into 95 percent of our gasoline.

Most ethanol comes from corn. And Iowa is the heart of the Corn Belt. Ethanol is now part of the fabric of the Iowa’s rural economy.

Craig Peterson’s farm in Dayton, Iowa, has been in his family for nearly 150 years.

CRAIG PETERSON, Iowa Farmer: A lot of my corn goes to the local elevators, and they haul it right to the ethanol plants. There’s like three ethanol plants 25 miles away.

DAVID SWENSON, Economist, Iowa State University: You’re not allowed to talk bad about ethanol. This is Iowa.

DAVID BIELLO: David Swenson is an Iowa State University economist.

DAVID SWENSON: It’s no different than if you bad-mouth coal in West Virginia or timber in Oregon. You’re going to get blowback, no matter what happens. And that’s the way it is with ethanol in the state of Iowa.

DAVID BIELLO: David Yepsen has covered Iowa politics for more than 30 years.

DAVID YEPSEN, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale: Over the years, the biggest winner of the Iowa caucuses has been the ethanol industry. And I say that because every member of the United States Senate who has run comes through Iowa and offers up an ethanol program. Everyone has to worship at the altar of ethanol.

DAVID BIELLO: We found Donald Trump at a renewable fuels conference in Altoona, just outside of Des Moines.

QUESTION: What convinced you on ethanol?

DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate: I just feel strongly we should do everything we can to create fuel, everything we can to create fuel.

DAVID BIELLO: Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders support the RFS too. The ethanol debate this year is just among Republicans.

Eric Branstad, the son of Iowa’s popular Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, leads America’s Renewable Future, that group following Ted Cruz in the R.V.

ERIC BRANSTAD, State Director, America’s Renewable Future: I would say that Carly Fiorina has turned into one of our better candidates.

DAVID BIELLO: Branstad’s ethanol report card shows some candidates have changed their position after setting foot in Iowa. Now all but two make the grade.

Looking at this, it’s kind of an anybody but Cruz or Paul.

ERIC BRANSTAD: That’s what it comes down to.

DAVID BIELLO: And neither Senators Ted Cruz nor Rand Paul have budged.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY), Republican Presidential Candidate: If push comes to shove and I have to vote for the Renewable Fuel Standard, I’m not an advocate of it.

DAVID BIELLO: Ted Cruz remains the big concern.

SEN. TED CRUZ: God bless the great state of Iowa.

DAVID BIELLO: He’s near the top of the polls with the caucuses days away.

DAVID YEPSEN: One of the reasons you’re hearing a lot about ethanol now is that the industry is very concerned that, if Ted Cruz wins here, having shown some question about Renewable Fuel Standards, it will open the floodgate. It will make it permissible for presidential candidates not to support a strong Renewable Fuel Standard.

ERIC BRANSTAD: From his first hour coming to Iowa, he put that badge on and said that, I am against the RFS, period.

DAVID BIELLO: Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King supports the RFS, but he’s also national co-chair of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.

NARRATOR: King promised to fight for Iowa’s farmers, calling ethanol and renewable fuels our Holy Grail. But now King calls Senator Ted Cruz the answer to his prayers. Senator Cruz is fighting in Congress to end the Renewable Fuel Standard.

DAVID BIELLO: Iowa economist David Swenson:

DAVID SWENSON: Not only is Representative King an ardent supporter of ethanol. His district has the highest concentration of ethanol plants in the United States.

DAVID BIELLO: King has said he will defend the RFS, and will even go against Cruz should Cruz become president. Here, King explains his position to a room full of ethanol producers.

REP. STEVE KING (R), Iowa: From where I sit, as much as I care about renewable fuels, it’s not the only thing.

DAVID BIELLO: King says Cruz’s constitutional and moral principles need support, despite Cruz’s stand on the RFS. Cruz does appear to have shifted a bit on ethanol. Some feared he’d repeal the RFS immediately. Now it’s a five-year phase-out. But only recently, he’s claimed to be even more pro-ethanol than the others, because its the RFS’s fault ethanol hasn’t reached its full potential.

SEN. TED CRUZ: You want to talk about a big impact for Iowa for corn farmers, for ethanol producers, getting rid of that government barrier is a much, much bigger deal than the RFS.

DAVID BIELLO: Dave Vander Griend runs a Kansas-based ethanol technology company. He wants the RFS eliminated too, and managed to get Cruz’s attention two months ago. The EPA limits the amount of ethanol in our fuel supply to 10 percent, the standard E10 most of us use, or the less popular and less available E85 you can use if you have a flex-fuel vehicle.

DAVE VANDER GRIEND, CEO, ICM Inc.: What do I want to put in my car? Do I want to put an E10, E20, E30, E85? I want those choices. I want those opportunities and I want to be able to save money.

DAVID SWENSON: That’s a fanciful idea. And it doesn’t feel very good. They’re saying that the ethanol industry can produce ethanol more cheaply than the petroleum industry can produce gasoline, and that they can compete. There’s no evidence of that. There’s absolutely no evidence of that.

DAVID BIELLO: A recent Des Moines Register poll shows most Iowans still favor the RFS. But only one in five Iowans actually works in an agriculture-related industry. The question remains, how hard will Iowans fight for ethanol in the caucuses?

David Yepsen doesn’t think ethanol will be a deciding factor.

DAVID YEPSEN: Other issues are driving this election, national security questions, social issues, and, most importantly, what people think of the candidate as a human being. You know, they don’t sit there with a clipboard and say ethanol, yes or no, and that’s how they decide their vote.

DAVID BIELLO: It’s not just the caucuses. Come November, if Ted Cruz or Rand Paul wins the Republican nomination, Iowans may just get another chance to show just how much they support ethanol.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m David Biello in Des Moines, Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a reminder: Tomorrow, I will be reporting from Iowa on the race for the White House. Be sure to tune to the NewsHour all weekend and Monday for the latest on the Iowa caucuses.

We will air at our regular time. Plus, we will have a late-night special report Monday night at 11:00 Eastern.

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