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Ethanol retains grip on primary politics

ETHANOL RETAINS GRIP ON PRIMARY POLITICS: Every leading Democratic presidential contender with a public position on ethanol policy has come out in support of the biofuel — a revered product in the early caucus state of Iowa, where 44 ethanol plants help support more than 40,000 jobs. So far, none of the Democrats competing there have criticized the Renewable Fuel Standard or its environmental footprint, despite the party’s push to promote a stronger response to climate change, Michael Grunwald writes in POLITICO Magazine.

For example: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who once criticized ethanol mandates for their “negative impact on farmers and consumers,” reversed course when he ran for president in 2016. He now calls ethanol “an economic lifeline to rural and farm communities in Iowa and throughout the Midwest.”

New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, a Senate Ag member who in the past criticized biofuels derived from food crops as economically and environmentally problematic, now “supports the Renewable Fuels Standard and the full range of biofuels it is designed to promote,” according to a spokesperson.

Fighting for farm country: It’s a sign Democrats still think they can revive their brand in rural regions by pledging allegiance to the government’s longstanding efforts to prop up biofuel production.

“Democrats are doing really well in Iowa’s urban areas, but we’re getting hammered in the countryside,” said Patty Judge, a Democrat who’s served as Iowa’s agriculture secretary and lieutenant governor. “Prudent candidates are going to talk about our home-grown ethanol industry and all the good jobs it creates.”

On the other hand: Environmental groups say adhering to the longstanding ethanol-friendly doctrine of primary candidates in Iowa is in direct conflict with the party’s lurch toward environmentalism.

“This should be an early test of whether candidates are really committed to attacking the climate crisis,” said Scott Faber, an Environmental Working Group lobbyist who focuses on ag issues. “You can’t be for the status quo with ethanol and also be for saving the planet.”

Who’s next? Some environmentalists see California Sen. Kamala Harris as the most likely to stray from the pack by taking on RFS — but she hasn’t taken a public position yet, and her office didn’t respond to requests for comment.