The coming ethanol war

The Democratic Party wants and needs to make inroads in the Midwest in the next few years. 

In 2020, President Biden narrowly carried Wisconsin and Michigan, states crucial to his victory. But in congressional, state and local races in much of the Midwest, Democrats continue to trail Republicans. 

Iowa is an example. 

The Democrats in 2020 lost at least one U.S. House seat from Iowa, maybe two — that decision is now being debated. Republican Joni Ernst soundly defeated her Democratic opponent to win re-election to the U.S. Senate. Republicans picked up several seats in the Iowa Legislature, and most rural counties in the state now lean Republican.

President Biden’s action plan for the next few years holds promise for the nation as a whole: massive economic relief to recover from the COVID slump, legislation and executive orders to fight climate change and protect natural resources, infrastructure improvements to ease day-to-day life and create thousands of jobs, and restoring America’s leadership role in world affairs, for starters.

But several of the new president’s proposals will give Midwestern Democrats heartburn.

One is Biden’s announced plan to convert the nation’s autos to electric power by 2050. General Motors last month one-upped Biden by announcing its intention to produce no internal combustion cars after 2035.

The plan makes sense for climate protection.

Gasoline-powered vehicles produce more greenhouse gases than any other single factor on Earth. Ending their century-long dominance on America’s roads is seen by scientists as essential for the continuance of life as we have come to know it.

The problem is what that will do to the market for ethanol, a major additive for American gasoline.

Forty percent of the annual 13 billion bushel corn crop in America is now distilled into ethanol. And no state outdistills Iowa.

What alternative market can be developed for that much corn by 2050, or 2035? And to what use can that many corn acres be converted? 

I’m no agricultural economist. But I doubt the soybean market could handle converting the corn acres that now feed Iowa’s ethanol plants to beans instead. Livestock feed constitutes the other major market for corn — expansion of cattle and hog production to handle that much more feed corn doesn’t seem likely either.

Several ethanol plants in Iowa already shut down during the Trump administration, which was notorious for granting waivers from ethanol for dozens of oil refineries. Without government help, like the renewable fuel standard for ethanol blends, ethanol would likely fail economically as a market for corn. 

Its failure would be a certainty without the internal combustion engine.

Biden is ethically and politically duty-bound to look for alternative uses for corn that now goes to make ethanol, and/or the acres that produce those billions of bushels. 

Midwestern Republicans already sense blood in the water. 

On Monday this week, Ernst’s press secretary issued a news release that said, “Senator Ernst urged President Biden not to give into the misguided political demands of the Left and to change course by instead promoting the adoption of higher biofuel blends and investing in expanding biofuel infrastructure that will provide consumers with better access to cleaner, cheaper choices at the pump.”

Biden, by contrast, wants to eliminate the pump.

It’s not just farms that would be under the gun. The entire rural economy of Iowa and other Midwestern states is geared for corn production — equipment producers and sellers, the seed and ag chemical sectors, producer cooperatives, and the towns that serve the needs of people and businesses that rely on the corn economic complex.

It’s important to distinguish between the case for electric vehicles and the case for ethanol.

Ethanol is important today to the Midwest. Reducing the climate change threat is important to the entire planet, and that includes the Midwest as well. 

Biden is doing what’s expected of him as the leader of the nation. A majority of Americans chose him to make those decisions. 

By the same token, Republicans are expected to challenge Democratic decisions that they think are harmful to their constituents. Right now a threat to ethanol as a fuel additive offers Republicans a political opportunity that they look eager to grasp, regardless of its long-term ramifications.

Bottom line: the Democratic Party must find or create a solution to help their candidates weather the coming Midwestern political storm if the ethanol fuel additive disappears in the next few decades. 

Reapportionment caused by urban growth will help the Democratic cause, as would charismatic candidates, possible major future events unforeseen at present, and demonstrated Democratic success in helping average Americans’ lives in the next few years.

It will take skilled Democratic leadership to restore the Midwest to truly purple political status in the coming decade.

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