A dispatch from our Iowa Independent colleague Jason Hancock with huge implications for Colorado’s renewable energy economy.
Republicans unanimously passed a platform on Monday that calls for the federal government to end a mandate that gasoline contain a set amount of ethanol, but Iowa Republicans say they oppose the proposal.
Under the agriculture section, the platform talks about food versus fuel concerns and states that the “U.S. government should end mandates for ethanol and let the free market work.”
The move is a major change from the 2004 platform, which supported expanding the use of ethanol as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil and increase revenue for farmers. It’s also a move away from the Bush administration’s views on ethanol towards those of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain.
Iowa’s Republican leaders disagreed with the move but shied away from being overtly critical of the platform and the party’s presidential candidate.
“I assume the platform was presented and voted up and down without discussion and ethanol was not discussed separately,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley in a conference call with reporters yesterday morning. “If we were going to have $140-a-barrel oil our whole life, we may not need mandates. But if we didn’t have mandates, we wouldn’t have the vibrant energy business we have right now.”
Iowa’s elected Republican members of Congress were not delegates to the convention, and thus did not have the opportunity to vote on the platform plank regarding ethanol. Many speculated, when it was announced that congressional Republicans would not be delegates, that it was because they disagreed with McCain on farm policy and ethanol subsidies. That rumor was quickly quelled, with Grassley specifically saying it was in order to allow more Iowans to be a part of the political process. Now, with the ethanol mandate portion of the platform in place, the speculation has begun again.
However, Republican officials would not address that rumor.
“[U.S. Rep. Tom] Latham believes that this industry is too young to embrace such a policy statement,” said James Carstensen, the Republican congressman’s chief of staff, in a statement. “He has always been a champion of ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels as they are vital to the economic growth and security of Iowa while also helping to accomplish America’s energy independence by lessening our dependence on foreign oil.”
Other Midwestern Republicans were not so timid in their criticism of the platform plank.
“It’s proof that Republicans are not always right,” South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune told The Associated Press. “On this one, they just got it wrong.”
The renewable fuel standard was expanded in the 2007 energy bill to require a total of 36 billion gallons of biofuels to be blended into gasoline by 2022. However, the law gives the EPA the authority to waive portions of the law at its discretion.
In May, McCain joined 23 other Senate Republicans in sending a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking it to consider waiving ethanol mandates.
In August, U.S. regulators rejected a request from Texas Gov. Rick Perry to halve the ethanol mandate, which he blamed for driving up the price of corn and making it more expensive for farmers to feed their livestock.
“This item in the platform is not anti-ethanol, it is anti-federal mandates on the states, which is a traditional conservative viewpoint,” said Steward Iverson, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa in a statement from the convention.
The party adopted the platform Monday, one of the few formal actions taken on a day when the convention was scaled back because of concerns over Hurricane Gustav.
Under the energy section, the platform states that America “must continue to develop alternative fuels, such as biofuels, especially cellulosic ethanol, and hasten their technological advances to next-generation production” and says that “because alternative fuels are useless if vehicles cannot use them, we must move quickly to flexible fuel vehicles.”
With Iowa expected to be a presidential battleground state this November, many wonder whether the anti-ethanol mandate plank in the national party platform will hurt McCain’s chances of winning Iowa.
Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa and faculty advisor to the school’s College Republicans, said the content of the platforms from either party haven’t been all that important for quite awhile.
“They are essentially statements of the party base of things they would like to see done or principles followed — at least for those participating in the process,” he said, adding: “More often than not such planks are used to try to create a ‘gotcha’ moment along the lines of, ‘Candidate So-and-so, your party has plank X, but you’ve said Y on the issue. How do you reconcile that difference?’ On the whole, the process of creating the party platform is a good exercise in grassroots democracy, but it’s certainly not critical to a candidate.”
Grassley said that he disagrees with that part of the platform because without the mandates he believes there wouldn’t be the investment in ethanol that there has been to date.
“We get 5 percent of fuel for our vehicles from renewables, and if we didn’t we’d be getting 5 percent more from foreign oil,” he said. “It would be sending billions of dollars more to Arabs, and I just don’t think that’s good economic security. It’s not national security, it’s not good foreign policy.”
Despite disagreeing with McCain and his party on ethanol, Grassley said McCain is still mostly right on energy policy, so he will continue to support him.
“I may have disagreements with Sen. McCain on other issues as well if you go through the platform. I might find one or two other things to disagree on,” he said. “But he supports expanded drilling, which I think is a bigger energy issue than where he stands on ethanol.”