A couple of weeks ago we learned that opponents of ethanol mandates weren’t going to quietly slink off the stage just because President Trump and Scott Pruitt were backing up the Renewable Fuel Standard. While this subject isn’t sexy enough to be making headlines on cable news these days, the fight is continuing unabated. The previous incident arose from Senator Joni Ernst blocking the nomination of EPA air chief Bill Wehrum and threatening to work with her Iowa partner Chuck Grassley to block others unless the RFS was fully protected.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz fired back with his own blockade of Bill Northey (Iowa Secretary of Agriculture), who was nominated for a position at the Department of Agriculture. A meeting was finally scheduled between a group of Republicans seeking to scale back the RFS and the Iowa contingent, but that was two weeks ago and it still hasn’t happened. As Politico reports in their Morning Energy newsletter, the situation is now heating back up.
Sen. Ted Cruz, having seemingly failed to secure a meeting with Midwestern senators brokered by the White House, has turned to newly fledged Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to try and bring corn-staters to the table. Cruz wrote to Reynolds Tuesday to explain why he has put a hold on the nomination of Iowan Bill Northey to become an undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture. He cites high costs of biofuel credits in the Renewable Fuel Standard that refiners in Texas and elsewhere say is hurting their bottom line (Reuters reported yesterday that at least one refinery is selling off high priced credits to meet debt payments). “Both sides of the debate must negotiate in good faith to find a mutually agreeable solution to secure the fate of liquid fuels in America,” Cruz wrote.
You started it! Cruz said Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley blocked “multiple EPA nominations (and threatened to do the same to judicial nominations)” to protect the RFS from EPA interference. Ernst blocked only EPA air chief Bill Wehrum. The rumor that Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, threatened to block judicial nominations has circulated for months. A spokesman told ME that the Iowa Republican “did not place a hold on any EPA nominee and has not threatened to place a hold on any judicial nominee.”
Is Cruz going to have any better luck with Kim Reynolds than her predecessor? Unlikely, particularly when you consider that Reynolds was one of the ones lobbying Trump directly on the phone during the initial dust-up, pushing to hold the line on the RFS. Despite the fact that recent polling has shown rank and file Iowans aren’t as concerned about the ethanol question as they used to be, it’s still heresy in Iowa politics to not toe the line.
In some ways, it’s unfortunate that a Senator like Cruz (who comes from an oil-rich state) has become the face of the opposition here. In the press, this keeps boiling down to a battle of “the fossil fuel people against the corn people.” That’s a sad development if you stop and think about it. There really shouldn’t be a need for a metaphorical civil war between these two groups. We are now a global leader in oil and gas production, but at the same time, we remain one of the world’s great producers of food. Corn is a staggeringly useful crop which goes to a dizzying array of purposes. But there’s no need to be burning it for fuel when we’re awash in far better, proven alternatives.
The number of voters in the GOP (and their elected representatives in Washington) who either oppose the ethanol mandates or simply don’t have a horse in that race vastly outweigh the King Corn contingent. The only card Grassley and company really have to play is Iowa’s early positioning in presidential primaries.
But it’s presumably going to be a long time – think 2024 – before they’ll be a factor in Republican presidential politics again. This might be the ideal time for the corn lobby to be forced to give some ground and start chopping down the RFS once and for all. If we leave the status quo in place for another six years we may never be rid of the beast.