An upcoming vote on a little-known EPA rule on E15 ethanol could pose an early first test for potential presidential candidates looking to come through Iowa. The U.S. Senate’s Environmental and Public Works committee will soon consider the Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act, which allows E15 fuel to be sold during the summer months. Renewable fuel advocates see it as a key priority for expanding ethanol usage.
Currently, you can only sell E15 for eight and a half months out of the year. The issue has to do with Reid vapor pressure restrictions, which sees fuel evaporation rates climb in the warmer summer months that can affect air quality. But E10 ethanol was already granted a special exemption to RVP standards, and E15 has a better air quality rating than it.
Iowa retailers and farmers are watching the issue closely because of the confusion and instability of having E15 available at the pump for only part of the year. It’s made it more difficult for E15 to catch on and grow its market share when it either disappears from gas stations for several months or suddenly gets labeled as “flex-fuel only” for a while. Corn markets have been particularly rough this year, and a new way to get more corn products to consumers would be useful to them.
Five Democratic senators on the Environmental and Public Works committee are often mentioned as potential 2020 contenders: Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Jeff Merkley. Sanders already committed to boosting ethanol efforts during his presidential run, but several of the other Democrats on the committee don’t have as long a record on the issue.
Merkley is making a trip to Iowa this September, which raised questions of his future ambitions. The location of his speech? Progress Iowa’s Corn Feed fundraiser.
Regardless of how it might impact their chances in Iowa, how presidential candidates handle ethanol and renewable fuel policies could play a part in their electability pitch to Democrats. The party lost significant ground in rural counties in Midwestern states, and many Democrats are looking for candidates who can win those places back, or at least not do as poorly there as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Part of any candidate’s rural economy proposal would likely involve renewable energy. An early vote against ethanol expansion could make that outreach to rural America and farmers more difficult.
The legislation is currently being held up by opposition from Republican Senators John Barrasso and Jim Inhofe, two of the Senate’s leading climate change deniers. Iowa Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst (Ernst sits on the committee) have pushed for the change, and former Governor Terry Branstad signed on in public support before leaving for China.
It could pose one more challenge to Democrats’ efforts to win back votes in rural Iowa if a Democratic presidential nominee opposed a key renewable fuel policy favored by farmers, while Republican state leaders supported it. So there will be more than industry leaders watching closely as those five senators vote on the E15 measure.
by Pat Rynard