Corn growers in Iowa are facing a major setback in the Democratic National Committee vote to drop the state as the first of its presidential primary voting calendar, a shake-up that threatens the federal policy that requires ethanol be mixed into American gasoline.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it — the [new primary calendar] takes a very powerful tool out of our toolbox to promote renewable fuels policy to one party,” Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuel Association, said in an interview.
The policy placed in danger is the Renewable Fuels Standard, a 2005 law that requires oil companies to blend increasing volumes of ethanol into their fuel mixes.
The Renewable Fuels Standard has pitted corn growers against the oil industry and against environmental groups, which view the RFS as both economically and environmentally problematic. They argue that ethanol production is resource-intensive and uses land that could instead be used for other types of agriculture or growth.
But in Iowa, the nation’s largest producer of ethanol and home to 44 biofuel plants that support roughly 40,000 jobs, corn is king.
For years, presidential hopefuls vying for support in the primary elections have lined up to kiss the ring and pledge support for the Renewable Fuels Standard.
Doing so is considered key to political success in Iowa for candidates in both parties.
In previous years, Democratic contenders ranging from Michael Bloomberg to Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have all announced support for biofuels and a robust RFS in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses— even if it meant walking back long-held policy positions.
Sanders, who had been an outspoken critic of the RFS ethanol mandates, hailed the corn-based fuel during his 2016 presidential bid as an “economic lifeline to rural and farm communities in Iowa and throughout the Midwest.”
Now, renewable fuel advocates fear that dropping Iowa as the leading state from the presidential primary calendar means that candidates won’t have to make such commitments.
Iowa no longer being first in the nation in terms of its caucuses would “lessen the opportunities for Democrats to come to Iowa and for the Iowa farmers to make the case” for ethanol, Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said in an interview.
It’s “good to have those people that are potentially — if not going to get the nomination and become president, still tend to be high-profile people, often senators and governors — it’s good to have them understand the importance of ethanol, partly just in general, but [also] the effect that that has on Iowa corn growers,” Hagle said.
In office, Biden has helped the industry. Most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed raising the volumes of ethanol and biodiesel in the nation’s fuel supply to new highs in 2023 and subsequent years.
While there are still leaders in the Democratic Party who understand rural America, Shaw said, they are getting fewer and farther between. And the calendar change means that presidential candidates will not need to court the corn lobby to the same extent.
“It seems to me that we’re still a very split country and that many of the states that are in play and that are raised or close have sizable rural areas that participate in biofuels production,” Shaw said, mentioning Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.