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Northey talks biofuels at GOP convention
The Republican National Convention in St. Paul was not particularly kind to ethanol.
The GOP started out the week by unanimously approving a platform that calls for an end to the federal renewable fuels standard. And in their convention speeches the party’s standard bearers — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska — hardly mentioned biofuels as part of the energy mix of the future.
The Iowa Independent conducted a telephone interview on Thursday afternoon with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, a Republican proponent of ethanol and biofuels who was at the convention all week.
Northey said he was disappointed in the GOP platform plank that calls for an end to the renewable fuels standard. “There’s certainly plenty of Midwestern folks that believe in ethanol, and it would’ve been nice to actually have discussion over it,” he said, noting that the truncated first day of the convention made it impossible for debate on the platform.
Given the popularity of ethanol and biodiesel in Iowa, the lack of support by the GOP at the national level has the potential to turn off some rural Iowa voters who might normally vote Republican. But Northey said there is still time for the Republican ticket to make its case for the agricultural vote.
McCain has repeated his opposition to “ethanol subsidies” numerous times, though his running mate is more of a mystery. “I don’t know that I’ve heard anything specifically on ethanol from Gov. Palin,” said Northey. “She probably hasn’t had that much exposure.”
Northey said that McCain has recently been talking “in positive tones about renewable fuels,” but added there is still a question about how McCain would go about supporting renewable fuels. “I think he’s going to have some time to talk about that, and I think Iowans are going to want to know,” said Northey. “I know he has indicated concern about subsidies, and wanting to deal with market issues. But certainly ethanol and biodiesel need support to be able to get started, and I think that’s awful important.”
So what exactly does McCain mean when he says he’s opposed to ethanol subsidies?
“I’m not sure that that’s always been clear,” said Northey. “I guess the assumption has been that he’s opposed to the tax credits. Early on, last year, we walked through an ethanol plant together. At that point, he talked about how important it was for renewable fuels to be a part of the mix. And that maybe we ought to be looking towards the future in how we slowly ratchet away from the tax credits on ethanol blending. I think that’s not near as scary to folks than it is to think that he’s going to pull a full court press on stripping the subsidies out right away. But really, it does matter a lot what he means. And I’m not sure we always have a great feel for that.”
But despite the questions about the top of the ticket, there’s still a lot of support for ethanol at the Republican convention. Northey said that he was tapped to speak at an agriculture breakfast at the convention, alongside Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
“All of us ended up talking about renewable fuels and how important they are,” said Northey. “Saxby has a new ethanol plant, a Fagen ethanol plant in Georgia. And he was talking about how valuable it was to be able to have that plant and how they’re new believers in ethanol. And so certainly there was lots of pro-renewable fuels discussion. As I talked about Iowa, Sen. Thune talked about South Dakota getting to nearly a billiion gallons of ethanol production this year.”
Northey said that renewable fuels are an important issue for agriculture, but other important issues, such as free trade and environmental regulation, will also be on the minds of farmers when they head to the voting booth this fall. “I think certainly trade is a huge issue,” said Northey. “And while we look at ethanol production and the growth of domestic uses of grain, very quietly we are seeing record exports.”
Iowa has seen a tremendous jump in export sales of agricultural products, from $4 billion in exports in 2006 to $5 billion in 2007. “Exports are huge. We’re having record exports, and if we did not have those exports we would have a significantly lower price for our corn and soybeans. And also for hogs and cattle. We’re seeing livestock exports grow. And I’ve certainly heard concerns about Obama on trade agreements, and how he would not support most of the trade agreements that are out there.” South Korea, he said as an example, could be a very important destination for Iowa meat products with the right trade policies in place.
Northey said that farm voters will also consider the candidates’ views on environmental regulation.
“What’s the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) decide to do with an Obama presidency versus a McCain presidency? I think folks would certainly expect a McCain presidency to have an active EPA, but there’s concern among some in the ag community that an Obama presidency could have a very, very active EPA that really disrupts agriculture,” said Northey. “So that regulatory environment, that role of government, really potentially matters and it can dramatically impact agriculture.”