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Ethanol Loses Its Luster

Posted: December 3, 2015 | By: Austin Cannon Tagged: From the Campaign Trail

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Buried in the middle of Season 6 is an episode of “The West Wing” entitled “King Corn.” It’s set five days before the Iowa caucuses and three presidential candidates, Vice President Bob Russell, Rep. Matt Santos and Sen. Arnold Vinick, are all scheduled to speak in front of the Iowa Corn Growers Association Expo.

They are all expected to take a pledge to support ethanol. Russell, even though he notes how it wastes oil to manufacture ethanol early in the episode, takes the pledge, saying “We need more ethanol production.” Santos is unsure, and his wife reminds him that ethanol is heavily subsidized. He notes how it’s expensive and actually hurts the environment. Santos argues with his campaign manager Josh Lyman, saying supporting ethanol is the definition of pandering. He badly doesn’t want to take the pledge. In the end, however, he listens to Lyman and takes the pledge to please the Iowans. Vinick, who had opposed ethanol publicly in the past, doesn’t want to take the pledge either. (“I’m not a panderer.”) His staff thinks they’ve persuaded him to do it, but when he takes the stage he does not take the pledge, declining to tell the audience what it wants to hear.

So why did I just give you a fictional example? Hear me out. Ethanol is an additive to gasoline. It’s commonly made from corn. Perhaps now you see what it is an important issue in Iowa, the U.S.’s leading corn producer.

Back in 2007, Congress and President George W. Bush required that ethanol be added into the nation’s fuel supply through the Renewable Fuel Standard (burning ethanol is cleaner than burning gasoline). Woah, big deal for Iowa. That meant jobs and economic stimulus. Neat. Unsurprisingly, 47 percent of Iowa’s corn goes to produce ethanol. With a multitude of special interest and even the governor behind it, ethanol in Iowa is a formidable industry. Because of its power and the jobs and money it provides — combined with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation standing — presidential candidates can’t ignore it.

Bush endorsed ethanol way back in 1999, eight years before he signed the RFS into law. His brother, however, was much more hesitant to commit to supporting it. He’s not the only one. According to this Wall Street Journal story, candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, two candidates in the top half of the polls, don’t support the RFS and, by extension, ethanol. The WSJ story also heavily hints at pandering, noting how Mitt Romney committed his support to the RFS one month before the 2012 caucuses. There are those like Vinick as well, as the WSJ indicates: John McCain didn’t support ethanol and didn’t do well in the 2008 caucuses. Another candidate that year, Jon Huntsman, said his position against ethanol kept him from competing in the caucuses period.

Candidates who support ethanol? Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the last two winners of the caucuses.

But ethanol has its problems, quite a few of them, actually. The biggest one for me is that it pollutes. Sure, the ethanol-blended gas burns cleaner, but the production of ethanol requires the burning of even more oil, which allows more greenhouse gasses to escape into the air. Maybe now, after our president just attended a major summit on climate change, isn’t the best time to mention that. In fact, I’m going to let John Stossel take it from here:

But even as the EPA raised its ethanol requirements this week, Iowans, again including the governor, were enraged because the requirements aren’t as high as the RFS goal in 2007.

Like the video above says, the reason ethanol gets this much national attention is because of the caucuses. If the caucuses aren’t as important as they are, no one outside of the state would really care. It obviously got to the point, whether with Bush or the examples in “King Corn,” that campaigns began to think they needed to satisfy the corn lobby (read that ridiculous phrase again) to earn a strong showing in Iowa. At the same time, though, you can’t blame Terry Branstad or Iowa corn growers for pushing this issue. This is what their livelihoods are based on; of course they’re going to take advantage of the political calendar. Any other state would do the same. Too bad they aren’t first.

CIMG_1208annon is a senior journalism and political science major from Kansas City. He interned this summer at the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S., The Hartford Courant, and he cares too much about the World Champion Kansas City Royals. Follow him on Twitter.