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Buying time for biofuels

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Iowa’s congressional delegation mustered a goal-line defense for biofuel subsidies as the last holdouts to the House passing a debt ceiling bill that slashes government spending and sets up a showdown with President Joe Biden. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy got the four Iowa votes in the wee hours last week in return for a pledge to hold harmless tax credits for ethanol and biodiesel, for the time being. The House passed by two votes a bill that increases the debt ceiling so the government can pay its bills, and which cuts spending by $133 billion next year. The bill grandfathers in tax credits on existing biofuels contracts but phases them out after 2024. The bill would repeal most of the climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, and clear the way for more fossil fuel production. It also would cut spending for food programs, Medicaid and other “discretionary” programs (presumably keeping military spending cuts off-limits). Meanwhile, back in Des Moines, the legislature eliminated funding for statewide water quality monitoring in the waning days of the session. The Iowa monitoring network was considered a regional, if not national, model for comprehensive stream data from hundreds of points across the state. The problem is, the network kept reminding us that our surface water is horrible. Nitrate and phosphorous levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, among others, are not going down. The monitors report that the problem generally is getting worse. So, if you don’t have the monitors you don’t have a water quality problem. Or, at least, you cannot describe where the problem originates. Certainly not with corn, or with ethanol. The state eliminated funding for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. When the state livestock confinement coordinator advised counties on how they could use the law to strengthen local control, the legislature eliminated his position. Now, water quality monitoring is going good night, and out goes the light on the impact of industrial row-crop production and processing. All of that won’t protect ethanol in the end. President Trump tried to get rid of the biofuel tax credits. The House Republican Caucus was all for the idea until the Midwesterners called out and put at risk their game of brinksmanship over the nation’s good faith in paying its bills. Republicans from the oil patch said the sodbusters will have their moment but not for long. Those credits ultimately must go, they said after the vote. The auto makers apparently agree, rapidly decamping from the internal combustion engine. You can defend the horse and buggy, but I wouldn’t want to invest in the whip business or bet on oats when GM is going all-electric, and the hottest vehicle on the market is the Ford F-150 Lightning that goes from zero to 60 in whiplash time. You can’t just pull the plug on ethanol and corn markets. It would be an economic disaster. But neither should we delude ourselves into thinking that we can pin our prosperity around corn ethanol burned by the ground transportation fleet. Our biofuel infrastructure needs help on transitioning to its next phase, not spending all our political capital defending the old structure. There are ethanol plants in Kansas depending on those tax credits when they scarcely have enough water to grow corn, much less distill it. If we didn’t grow corn where it doesn’t belong we would not need an ethanol market to suck up the excess. Nature is taking care of that, along with our help. The more soil we ship down the river, and the more we raise the temperature by burning fuel, the fewer bushels we will yield. If you believe in markets, you believe that markets will find an equilibrium. Obviously, Iowa Republicans don’t believe it. They would rather deny that a problem exists (such as, American Rivers has listed both the Raccoon and the Mississippi Rivers among its “most endangered”). The attacks on ethanol will not stop. The forces are lined up against it — left and right, environmentalists and oil companies. And Nature itself. Climate change is causing unmitigated suffering in Africa and Latin America because of extreme heat and drought. The way we grow corn and what we do with it is part of the problem. But if you don’t have the data you don’t have a problem until you can’t grow corn. The Mayans thought they could pull it off, too. I wish they would send a postcard to tell me how that all worked out. Art Cullen is the publisher and editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot. He won the the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 2017 and is the author of the book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.” Cullen can be reached at times@stormlake.com.

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