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Why Democratic presidential candidates, for once, are not fighting over ethanol

Biofuel is a major industry in Iowa. Democrats are promoting it to fight climate change and counter Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg takes a tour of the Golden Grain Energy ethanol plant in Mason City, Iowa.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg tours an ethanol plant in Iowa. He, like other 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, backs policies to support biofuels.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Not so long ago, esoteric policies about biofuels, and particularly ethanol, were a sharp dividing line in presidential primaries and an issue that dogged candidates on the trail in Iowa.

It separated candidates who supported getting rid of subsidies for biofuels and were skeptical of their environmental merits from those who believed in them as a bridge to energy independence and a low-carbon future. And in a crucial early primary contest in Iowa, where biofuels are a huge section of the economy, questions about them were hard to avoid.

In the 2016 primary, Republican presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) opposed federal biofuel mandates and faced harsh questions about his stance at nearly every campaign stop. (Cruz won the 2016 Republican Iowa caucuses, despite his position on ethanol.)

But ahead of the Iowa caucuses on Monday, the heat has largely dissipated as 2020 Democratic presidential contenders have come to a quiet consensus on biofuels.

“I was very pleasantly surprised that it hasn’t become a controversial issue,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “This is the first time in a long time where all the leading candidates ... are good on our issues.”

Almost all the candidates in the race support federal mandates for biofuels and limiting exemptions, as well as tax credits and policies to expand the role of fuels derived from plants. Though some researchers and activists question the environmental bona fides of biofuels, Democratic presidential candidates have pledged strong support for this industry, even as they’ve tried to outdo one another in ambition on climate change.

But the environmental concerns around biofuels aren’t going away and will only grow as the sector gains ground, which means Democrats will still have to reckon with its trade-offs when in office and risk alienating either some environmental campaigners or farmers.

A chart comparing 2020 Democrats in their support for ethanol and biofuel policies.
Most Democratic presidential contenders support pro-biofuel policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and limiting Small Refinery Exemptions (SREs).
BioFuels Vision 2020

And in 2020, biofuels are no less of a priority for Iowans. The state is the largest bioethanol producer in the country, making more than a quarter of the total in the US and generating $5 billion a year for the state’s economy. It’s a major concern for corn growers across the country, too, since 40 percent of corn goes toward making ethanol.

This ethanol is then blended into other fuels, the amount of which is governed by the Renewable Fuel Standard. The law was meant to help reduce both US dependence on imported energy and the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, since fuels derived from plants can theoretically be carbon-neutral. By 2022, refiners will have to blend in 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels or face steep fines.

Oil companies have long grumbled about this mandate to add biofuels to the mix, arguing that there is an upper limit to how much they can blend in before it causes technical problems, and that it’s excessively costly for them to do so.

This has led to a fight between Big Ag and Big Oil, and the Trump administration has sided with oil, granting dozens of exemptions to the RFS for fuel refineries owned by companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron. It’s a move that saves oil companies millions of dollars but destroys a large part of the biofuel market. And it also created an opening for Democrats to attack the president.

Democratic presidential contenders want to use biofuels to fight climate change and to criticize Trump

For Iowa farmers, the refinery waivers were yet another blow on top of President Trump’s trade war with China, which has shrunk sales of US agriculture products to China, and extreme weather in 2019 that damaged crops.

Democratic presidential contenders have seized on this discontent to pitch their climate change policies to Iowa farmers and to draw a distinction from Trump.

“Donald Trump’s reckless waivers to big oil refineries have undermined Iowa’s ethanol industry and rural economy — costing good-paying jobs and billions of lost gallons of biofuel,” said Jamal Brown, national press secretary for former Vice President Joe Biden, in an email. “Biden’s plan for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice doubles down on our national renewable fuel standard obligations, and implements stronger, bolder commitments that invest in ethanol and biofuels, including $400 billion in clean energy research, innovation, and deployment.”

Farmer Bob Geiger arrives for a visit by President Donald Trump at the Southeast Iowa Renewable Energy ethanol facility on June 11, 2019 in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Farmer Bob Geiger in Council Bluffs, Iowa, wears a hat proclaiming his support for biofuels.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Similarly, candidates including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and entrepreneur Tom Steyer have criticized Trump’s refinery waivers on the campaign trail and talked about biofuels as a route to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Few candidates, if any, have voiced skepticism about the economic or environmental benefits of biofuel subsidies. Michael Grunwald, writing in Politico last March, noted that this is a stark shift, even for Democrats:

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an anti-establishment iconoclast who once criticized ethanol mandates for their “negative impact on farmers and consumers,” already flip-flopped when he ran for president in 2016; he now calls ethanol “an economic lifeline to rural and farm communities in Iowa and throughout the Midwest.”

Urban Democrats like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a climate activist who once dismissed ethanol as morally and environmentally indefensible “unless what you’re trying to do is help the people in Iowa,” now say it makes sense as a transitional fuel until electric vehicles are more widely available.

Because Democrats now largely agree on pro-biofuels policy, it has scarcely come up in presidential debates or in national media in the current election cycle. It didn’t come up at all in the Iowa debate in January and was briefly mentioned in prior debates.

Some environmental groups remain skeptical about biofuels

The US is now the largest crude oil producer in the world, eroding the energy security argument for an alternative fuel. And environmental activists are growing increasingly concerned about the climate side effects of biofuel production.

In particular, the climate impacts of biofuel production can vary drastically. “The best ethanol can produce as much as 90 percent fewer lifecycle emissions compared to gasoline, but the worst ethanol can produce significantly more lifecycle emissions than gasoline,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Adding to the complexity is that researchers have come to opposite conclusions about the value of biofuels as a solution to climate change.

A 2018 EPA report also highlighted some potential environmental problems with biofuels, noting that biofuel policies have led changes in land use to accommodate more corn and soy. Removing a natural grassland or forest to plant a crop could have negative consequences for endangered species and ecosystem services. Biofuel demand is also increasing water consumption, and biofuel refineries can adversely impact air quality.

Many of these concerns apply to agriculture in general, but the concern is that with increasing demand for biofuels, the environmental impacts will become more significant. Activist groups like Friends of the Earth are already mobilizing to challenge biofuel subsidies and mandates. Environmental groups tend to support Democrats, so the candidates’ support for biofuels is creating some tension.

So while the temperature has dropped in the conversation about biofuels among Democrats, it’s still an important issue to voters in Iowa and much of the Midwest. And as the climate continues to change, the temperature could rise again in the future.