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Trump Tries to Bolster Iowa Farmers Hurt By Trade With Year-Round E15

Amy Mayer/IPR file
Year-round sales of E15 are billed as a boost to farmers who grow corn, though an environmental economist says any benefit would not be immediate.

President Donald Trump will be in Iowa Tuesday talking up his administration’s recent move to allow year-round sales of E15. That’s a form of gasoline with higher blends of ethanol – primarily made from corn. It’s a policy meant to bolster Trump’s support in the upper Midwest where farmers have been hurting as a result of his trade wars and natural disasters.

Last fall, President Trump announced he was lifting summer restrictions on the sale of E15.

“My administration is protecting ethanol,” Trump said before thousands of people in Council Bluffs in October 2018. “That’s what you wanted to hear.”

The ethanol industry in the number one corn producing state did want to hear that. The industry long lobbied for rules to increase the amount of ethanol in the gasoline supply - which the oil industry opposes.

Thanks to record-setting rainfall, it’s been decades since Iowa farmers have been this far behind in planting corn. Farmers here have been dealing with low commodity prices. At the same time bearing the brunt of the president’s trade wars. His administration has doled out billions of dollars in aid to them.

But what bothers Nevada, Ia. farmer Bill Couser is the administration trying to play both sides of ethanol versus oil. The Environmental Protection Agency has also been giving waivers to oil companies. That basically exempting some refiners from the rules around how much ethanol they blend into gasoline.

“The waivers have basically taken away everything E15 would have done for us in ethanol,” Couser says. He’s also on the board of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

“That’s very disappointing,” Couser says.

That’s something Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is quick to point out. She’s one of the nearly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates making regular stops in Iowa – which kicks off the presidential nominating process.

“You can’t be supportive of the renewable fuel industry if on the one hand you’re gloating about something you’re doing and then on the other hand under the dark of night there they’re giving Exxon and Chevron waivers so that they don’t have to meet the standards,” Sen. Klobuchar said while recently campaigning in Fort Dodge.

Year-round E15 could lead to more sales of ethanol if the waivers were reeled in, according to Gabriel Lade - an environmental economist at Iowa State University. He says Trump’s ethanol announcement does not have a short-term benefit.

“In the long run this could benefit the ethanol industry but that’s certainly not the way it’s being spun right now,” Lade says. “It’s being spun as an immediate benefit to farmers which it won’t be.”

Lade says the much bigger economic issue facing farm country is the Trump administration ratcheting up tariffs on the countries farmers export their crops to. Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds plans to meet with Trump during his visit. She told reporters last week she plans to bring up the updated trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico called the USMCA.

“Tariffs right now I think potentially disrupt us getting the USMCA ratified and so I really believe that’s where the focus needs to be,” Reynolds says. “And I’m just concerned about when he implements things like that the impact that it has on our ability to get that done.”

Reynolds also says she’ll also thank the president for following through on his promise to make E15 available year-round.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.