DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential hopefuls who attended the first Iowa Agriculture Summit this past weekend were divided in their views on what role the government should play in supporting the biofuels industry.
Most of the potential GOP candidates who attended the lively summit Saturday expressed support for the renewable fuel standard, though the level of enthusiasm for the policy ranged from unequivocal to moderate. Three potential 2016 candidates — former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former New York Gov. George Pataki — said they were against mandating that refiners use biofuels.
Some of the ethanol industry’s biggest lobbyists attended the summit, and supporters of the RFS say they intend to use the statements as a base line for judging GOP candidates as the presidential caucuses near.
"Failing to support the renewable fuel standard means failing to support America’s economy and national security," said Bill Couser, co-chairman of a new campaign to promote the RFS in the Iowa caucuses. "It is clear that Senator Cruz and Governor Perry need to learn more about this crucial issue."
Congress passed the renewable fuel standard in 2007 requiring that refiners annually add certain amounts of conventional ethanol and advanced biofuels to petroleum fuel. The RFS has been a key driver in boosting Iowa’s ethanol industry; Iowa is currently the top ethanol-producing state.
But the policy has sparked controversy in recent years, with critics in the oil industry saying that it forces refiners to use more biofuel than is technically feasible. U.S. EPA’s delays in implementing the annual volume standards for ethanol and advanced biofuels have added fuel to the critics’ fire.
Boosters of the RFS are hoping to make it a wedge issue in this state’s presidential caucuses, though it will be competing against a host of social and other domestic issues for top billing in the months of campaigning ahead.
Saturday’s agriculture summit, organized by Iowa agribusiness maven Bruce Rastetter, drew most of the key GOP presidential hopefuls. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore had been expected, but Rubio backed out last week because of a family wedding, while Trump and Gilmore canceled their appearances at the last minute.
Rastetter spent about 20 minutes with each potential candidate asking a slate of agriculture-related questions. The event was held on the Iowa State Fairgrounds, where potential candidates flock each summer to stand on the soapbox and mingle with Iowans eating various foods on a stick.
Of the attendees, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum expressed strong support for maintaining the RFS.
Christie said he would "absolutely" support the RFS as president and slammed the Obama administration’s handling of the policy. EPA has yet to finalize the annual RFS mandates for 2014 and beyond; the agency proposed to roll back the targets for the first time but then backed down from the proposal after receiving a firestorm of criticism from proponents and opponents of the RFS alike.
"It’s indicative of how the president doesn’t understand that the executive branch has to execute," Christie said. "The fact is that the law requires the president to establish RFS. And he should."
Santorum also slammed the Obama administration for having "frozen" the RFS for political reasons. The other pro-RFS presidential hopefuls framed the standard as an issue of national freedom and energy independence.
"Every gallon of ethanol is one less gallon you have to buy from someone who hates your guts," Graham said.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were more measured in their support.
Bush said that while he supports "certainty" in the RFS in the short term, the policy will eventually have to be reduced to allow the market to decide how much ethanol should be used.
"I would suggest to you that ultimately, whether it’s ethanol or any other alternative fuel, renewable or otherwise, the market is going to ultimately decide this," he said. "This law that was passed in 2007 has worked, for sure. Look at the increase in production. It has been a benefit to us as we’ve reduced our dependency on foreign sources of oil."
Walker said that he is "willing to go forward on continuing the renewable fuel standard."
While support for ethanol may be important in Iowa, the issue hasn’t been as significant in other areas of the country in the past: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made no secret about his opposition to ethanol when he was running for president in 2008. He lost the Iowa caucus but then went on to win the Republican nomination.
Three presidential hopefuls yesterday were similarly vocal in their objections to the RFS. Perry, the former Texas governor, who had previously petitioned EPA to waive the ethanol mandate on the grounds that it hurt the economy, said he has a "philosophical disagreement" with the federal government mandating that refiners use biofuels.
"I think this is substantially more a state issue," Perry said.
He also, however, called for a deeper look at the full array of subsidies supporting agriculture: "I don’t think we can pull the RFS out and discriminate against the RFS and leave all these other subsidies and mandates and policies in place."
Cruz and Pataki also said they believe that the federal government should not dictate biofuel requirements. Cruz added that demand for ethanol would continue absent the RFS and that federal antitrust laws would ensure continued competition in the fuels marketplace.
Cruz acknowledged that his opinion isn’t likely to be popular in the Hawkeye State.
"I recognize that this is a gathering of a lot of folks who the answer you’d like me to give is, ‘I’m for the RFS, darn it,’" Cruz said. "That’d be the easy thing to do."