The Iowa caucus debacle could lead to better energy policy

And then he said put CORN in the gasoline!
And then he said put CORN in the gasoline!
Image: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
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We’re still waiting on the first meaningful data in the 2020 presidential election more than 12 hours after the Iowa caucuses ended. An apparent app-gone-wrong has put a black mark on the early days of the election, and even cast doubt on the future of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation primary.

“I think the Iowa caucuses are dead, dead, dead,” says Democratic political operative David Axelrod, who helped manage Barack Obama’s break-out 2008 primary victory in Iowa. “This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event,” opined David Yepsen, the dean of Iowa political reporters.

That’s good news for those who criticize the months-long focus on Iowa as elevating an unrepresentative electorate ill-suited to choosing the right candidate for a nation more urban and diverse than the farm state. It’s also good news for those critical of how Iowa’s outsized electoral importance tips the scale on public policy, specifically the way it makes ethanol central to US energy policy.

Iowa and corn are synonymous, and one thing that’s good for corn farmers is a federal rule called the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that requires gasoline refiners to blend some 15 billion gallons of biofuels—mostly ethanol, an alcohol made from corn—into their products each year as a way, the government says, to promote renewable energy and fight climate change.

The RFS has been successful at boosting demand for corn and supporting employment in rural states like Iowa. But despite arguments from biofuels advocates, many scientists who study climate change say that it isn’t doing much to reduce the emissions that are warming the planet. That’s because industrial agriculture has its own impact on the Earth, particularly when farmers decide to clear more forest or grasslands to plant corn.

The Government Accountability Office released a report last year explaining that “the RFS has likely had a limited effect, if any, on greenhouse gas emissions. According to the experts and GAO’s prior work, the effect has likely been limited for reasons including: (1) the reliance of the RFS to date on conventional corn-starch ethanol, which has a smaller potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared with advanced biofuels, and (2) that most corn-starch ethanol has been produced in plants exempt from emissions reduction requirements.”

Nonetheless, when politicians are asking for votes, they endorse the rules that keep money flowing to voters—which means Democrats have been swarming Iowa to back a biofuels policy without much evidence in its favor. That’s especially true after president Donald Trump granted more waivers to refiners to exempt them from the RFS—a favor to the oil industry that has Iowa farmers upset.

So there’s Pete Buttigieg endorsing biofuels in an ethanol plant. Here’s Joe Biden endorsing biofuels in an ethanol plant. And there’s Elizabeth Warren endorsing biofuels in an ethanol plant. Even Bernie Sanders, who has criticized the RFS in the past, endorsed biofuels on a swing through rural Iowa.

Part of the issue are the expansive policies to fight climate change many of these candidates have endorsed; throwing money at biofuels is an easy way to signal that farmers can benefit from being part of the solution. Yet it’s still not clear if the current RFS is producing enough quality biofuel free of emissions for that to be true.

If the Iowa caucus is diminished in power in the next primary election, the ethanol lobby might be as well. That won’t remove all the reasons politicians have to endorse the RFS—they still need to be competitive in the farm states during the general election—but it might give them more space to carve out a more effective biofuels policy.