Winning Iowa’s presidential caucus is key for any candidate that wants to nab the Republican nomination in 2016. It’s so important that ostensibly conservative candidates are now backing federal ethanol mandates.
GOP hopefuls Rick Perry and Scott Walker have already expressed tepid support for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the federal government’s ethanol mandate, but now Sen. Lindsey Graham and Dr. Ben Carson also seem to be caving to Iowa’s ethanol interests.
In April, Graham joined Senate Democrats in signing a letter urging the EPA to expand ethanol blending requirements for refiners from what the agency proposed last year. The South Carolina Republican joined Democratic senators, including Barbara Boxer of California, in arguing the EPA should “take this opportunity to reverse course” and raise ethanol blending requirements to “unlock future investments in renewable fuels.”
When Graham visited Iowa in March he argued that ethanol was key to U.S. energy independence. He said that every gallon of ethanol produced in the U.S. means less oil “you have to buy from people who hate your guts.”
Graham’s support for ethanol in March may be heartfelt, but it comes after the senator voted in favor of an amendment to eliminate ethanol tax subsidies in 2011. While the tax subsidies and the RFS are two different programs, they were both key pillars of U.S. ethanol production.
“I voted in support of the Coburn Amendment to eliminate $6 billion in ethanol subsidies,” Graham said in a 2011 statement on the vote. “These subsidies skew the costs of corn in the United States up and down the supply chain. The Coburn Amendment would have also helped us begin paying down our national debt.”
The RFS has been a hotly contested policy for the past couple years, with most Republicans arguing it should be reformed or eliminated. Iowa is the largest U.S. ethanol-producing state, as well as the country’s largest corn producer. Corn ethanol is the main component of the RFS, so increasing ethanol blending requirements is key to keeping corn demand and prices higher than they would otherwise be. With this in mind, several GOP presidential hopefuls have now embraced ethanol.
Carson has also come out in support of the ethanol industry. He, however, said that while he does not support the RFS, he would support taking $4 billion a year in tax subsidies to the oil industry and using them to fund ethanol production.
“I don’t particularly like the idea of government subsidies for anything because it interferes with the natural free market,” Carson told The Des Moines Register.
“Therefore, I would probably be in favor of taking that $4 billion a year we spend on oil subsidies and using that in new fueling stations,” he said.
Carson’s plan would essentially revitalize a lapsed federal policy of subsidizing gas station pumps that dispense fuels with higher ethanol blends. That program was blocked in the 2014 farm bill.
Carson’s comments also reflect President Obama’s own talking points during the 2012 presidential campaign. Obama laid out a plan to cut $4 billion in oil industry tax subsidies — a number that’s actually disputed. The president said that oil tax credits should be used to fund green energy companies.
Shows of support from hopefuls Graham, Carson, Perry and Walker mirror support given by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The former Secretary of State expressed her support for the RFS and met with ethanol industry lobbyists in April.
Then again, Hillary opposed the RFS in 2002 when she was New York’s Senator. Then-Senator Clinton called the RFS a “tax.” But now Clinton says the RFS is one of the country’s best chances of “limiting our dependence on foreign oil.”
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