Joe Biden may have an ethanol problem.
The former U.S. vice president has pledged support for advanced biofuels as part of his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
But Biden, who leads the crowded Democratic field in opinion polls in Iowa and nationally, faces lingering questions in the farm belt over his role behind the scenes in 2014 when President Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency slashed the amount of corn-based ethanol that refiners must blend into the country's fuel supply.
Biden, both as a U.S. senator and as vice president, was a supporter of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a 2005 law requiring oil companies to blend increasing volumes of ethanol and other biofuels into fuel. But he was considered instrumental in orchestrating the blending cuts to help East Coast refineries that were struggling with costs of complying with RFS, and which said they could not sell enough of the higher-ethanol E15 blend. So the amount of ethanol they were required to blend was decreased from 18.15 billion gallons down to 15.21 billion.
A federal court struck down the cuts in 2016. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to make the biofuel industry whole for the lost gallons despite repeated promises to do so.
That could hurt Biden in Iowa, where he kicks off a campaign tour on Tuesday. Both he and President Donald Trump, who carried the state in 2016, will be there Tuesday. Iowa is America's top corn and ethanol producer, with 44 biofuel plants that help support more than 40,000 jobs. It holds the first presidential nominating contest in 2020, and any Democratic candidate who wants to win that vote and peel off some of Trump's Iowa support in the general election will likely have trouble if lukewarm on biofuels.
"I really hope we can finally get some answers to what happened," said Dave Walton, a farmer who grows corn, soybeans and raises livestock. "Right now, I am suspicious of anything Biden will say about his commitment to ethanol, but we do need to hear from him."
Iowa farmers and ethanol producers sent a letter, seen by Reuters, to Biden in 2014 asking him to explain his actions. They also requested a meeting that never materialized, according to those who sought it.
The RFS creates demand for Walton's corn, lifting prices, while ethanol production produces a byproduct that serves as cheap feed for his livestock. Walton, a registered independent who voted for Trump in 2016, says his vote is up for grabs in November 2020 because of Trump's trade wars and mixed support of the RFS.
Biden released a 22-page climate policy proposal earlier this month that promised net-zero emissions and a 100 percent clean-energy economy by 2050, largely through taxpayer investments in renewable energy and electric car infrastructure. He promised to refuse campaign contributions from oil and gas executives and strengthen regulation of oil companies.
The proposal's roughly 10,400 words did not include the word "ethanol," although Biden did explicitly support advanced biofuels, which fall under the RFS umbrella.
In an email on Monday, the Biden campaign did not comment on his role or motivations in the 2014 episode. The campaign said the country's energy revolution must be "fought for and with our farmers."
"By doubling down on our national renewable fuel standard obligations and implementing stronger, bolder commitments that invest in ethanol and biofuels, we can loosen big oil's grip on our nation while spurring economic growth in areas hard-hit by Trump's trade war," said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates.
Lots of Dems backing biofuels
In Iowa, ethanol is not as much a threshold Democratic Party issue as abortion rights or gun control.
Ethanol is opposed by many Democrats, who see it as maintaining the reliance on fossil fuels and combustion engine vehicles. Environmentalists argue that using land to grow corn for fuel also ruins natural habitats. Studies on the environmental benefits of ethanol versus gasoline in car engines have shown mixed results.
But backing biofuels typically is important for political success in the state, said Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
"In the general election, Iowa's largely Republican agricultural community is going to be less inclined to vote for a Democrat if they don't support ethanol. It's like, don't poke the bear and give them a reason to be against you," Covington said.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has made success in Iowa a priority and has climbed in the polls, stands out among top Democratic contenders as the most full-throated supporter of the state's ethanol industry.
Touring an ethanol plant in Dyersville, Iowa, on Monday, she said renewables like corn ethanol, soy biodiesel and advanced biofuels "play an important role in our march toward independence from fossil fuels."
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont supported the RFS during the 2016 campaign. At least seven Democratic candidates have toured Iowa ethanol facilities, including former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of corn-friendly Minnesota.
Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and agriculture secretary under Obama, said the concerns over Biden's ethanol bona fides were "unfounded." He said the Obama administration was a friend of the biofuels industry on a number of fronts, including funding new infrastructure for higher ethanol blends of gasoline.
"I think to focus on one action and ignore all the good the Obama administration did for the biofuel industry is unfair," said Vilsack, an informal adviser to a slew of Democratic candidates who want to better connect with rural Americans.
Monte Shaw, head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said it was true the Obama administration supported the biofuels industry. But he said he was aware of only one instance where Biden intervened on the issue, and that was to lower targets.
"If he was involved in more, we'd love to hear about it. The best thing he can do is come to Iowa, sit down with key players in the industry and explain what happened," Shaw said.