July 29, 2014

About the only thing Gov. Terry Branstad didn't do one recent Wednesday for energy production in west-central Iowa was to check the porch bulbs or flip on the night lights for residents himself in Glidden and Coon Rapids before leaving the region.

Branstad spent most of a working day involved in two local energy-development events: the dedication of a Raccoon Valley Electric Cooperative substation outside of Glidden and a ceremonial signing of a sweeping state renewable fuels bill at the POET Biorefining plant, just east of Coon Rapids in Guthrie County.

"We lead the nation in both biodiesel and ethanol production," Branstad told an early-afternoon crowd of local development officials, area leaders and renewable-fuels advocates at the POET facility. "We're proud that Iowa is leading the way."

The governor is on something of a whirlwind tour of rural Iowa ag business these days - I've covered him at, among other places, the Rose Acre egg-production facility in Guthrie County and Puck Custom Enterprises, a fantastically innovative liquid-manure-application company in Audubon County.

Talk with Branstad at all of these events, either with our newspaper, or in public interaction, has turned at some point to the Renewable Fuel Standard - which Branstad fiercely supports and sees as the linchpin for much of what's happening in rural Iowa - chiefly more markets for grain and valuable byproduct for livestock. He marvels at the choices available to farmers that didn't exist when he was growing up in Lake Mills.

Last week, in a powerful editorial - "We must not let Big Oil bully biofuels" - U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, made the case, along with Democratic colleague Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, for the Renewable Fuel Standard.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat with a 40-year record of championing rural Iowa-lifting programs like the Renewable Fuel Standard, is a central, reliable figure in the fight.

But what of the Republican woman seeking to replace him? How does Joni Ernst's worldview, her ideological instincts, intersect with the Renewable Fuel Standard, a launching pad for so much that is, according to our governor's experienced eye, so good here in rural Iowa.

"Philosophically, I am opposed to those mandates or those subsidies that are coming from the government," Ernst, a Red Oak Republican, says of the Renewable Fuel Standard, according to The Des Moines Register. "But, however, I understand that we are an ag economy here in Iowa and until we eliminate those subsidies across the board - every sector and at the same time - I'm going to continue to support the RFS."

So she's with us in rural Iowa, while being against us?

At the very least, Ernst is equivocating, perhaps to placate her campaign's ATM, Americans for Prosperity, a leading agent of the oil-refinery-invested billionaire Koch Brothers Club, which plans to spend $125 million this year supporting candidates of its liking.

And they like Ernst. Big time.

As for the Renewable Fuel Standard ...

"Given its numerous downsides, AFP strongly supports efforts to permanently eliminate the RFS," Americans for Prosperity Federal Affairs Manager Christine Harbin Hanson testified before a recent Environmental Protection Agency hearing.

Grassley, Harkin and Branstad are summoning their considerable skills to preserve the standard - in the face of the attack from Big Oil. There is no equivocation in their fighting words or spirit for the Renewable Fuel Standard. They've been around. They know what it means. Branstad checks grain prices every day with an ethanol plant friend.

It used to be we could just work hard in rural Iowa. Ernst appears quite capable of that. No challenge there. But today we have to work smart as well as hard. The Renewable Fuel Standard is part of that combination.

It is, for any thinking rural Iowan, non-negotiable. It's not a seesaw with philosophy one side, Iowa's rural economy on the other. Ernst appears ready to take us on such a playground ride.

Ernst's dispassionate discourse on the Renewable Fuel Standard reveals a politician shelving deep convictions about a government she wants to do nothing. You almost get the sense Ernst thinks she's doing us a favor in reluctantly supporting the biofuels booster - or at least saying she will.

What happens to Ernst's toe-in-the-water backing for the Renewable Fuel Standard when Paul Ryan or Newt Gringrich snake oils her on a grand, government-revolutionizing scheme, that on its face, before the small print that always benefits Big Oil, seems to swipe down with impunity all sort of federal programs, from support of farms to refineries?

What happens when the Kochs call in their favors to Ernst?

Who wins? Oil? Or corn? The Kochs? Or rural Iowa?

We'll see if Iowans are willing to bet the farm on the outcome.