How Ditching the Iowa Caucus Could Remake the Biofuels Debate

In the wake of Iowa’s caucus vote-counting disaster, political staffers and pollsters alike are reconsidering the state’s “first in the nation to vote” status. The quaint caucuses and infamous fry-forward state fair could disappear were Iowa to be dethroned. But so too could one of Iowa’s largest industries, which has managed to carve out an outsize role in debates over renewable energy: ethanol. For decades, ethanol has been a true litmus test in the Hawkeye State. An entire episode of the early 2000s TV show The West Wing was devoted to it: “It takes more oil to transport it and fertilize it than we save using it,” the show’s Democratic presidential candidate says of the biofuel. Asked if he’s considering reversing his pledge to back ethanol, he responds: “Don’t worry, I’m not suicidal.”

Drive several miles in any direction in Iowa and it won’t take you long to find yourself among corn. Rows and rows of buttery-hued heads mounted on dark green stalks line many roadways. Corn is Iowa’s biggest crop, and roughly 40 percent of it goes toward making ethanol—a biofuel that’s mixed with gasoline to power engines such as those in cars. The ethanol industry pumps $5 billion into Iowa’s economy, and the state’s 43 plants help support more than 40,000 jobs.

Today, candidates seeking the coveted election “bump” from winning Iowa’s caucuses know their position on ethanol could be crucial. This cycle at least nine presidential candidates, including President Trump, visited Iowa ethanol factories for chitchat and photo ops. Minnesota Senator and Democratic hopeful Amy Klobuchar visited an Iowa ethanol plant last April, donning a lime-green construction hat. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts visited one in June, her hat white.

A wind turbine is so powerful that just one can provide electricity for up to 300 homes at the same time.