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Ethanol fuels debate in Iowa

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Scott Jagow: The Iowa caucuses are tonight, believe it or not.
If you haven’t noticed, all of the presidential candidates in Iowa support government subsidies for the corn-based fuel ethanol. Iowa is, of course, a huge ethanol state. But not everyone in Iowa is on board with this movement. John Dimsdale takes a closer look.

John Dimsdale: Iowa dairy farmer Francis Thicke has watched the price of his feed skyrocket. He worries government subsidies for ethanol are diverting too much corn to fuel.

Francis Thicke: We’re going very fast down this road, and unfortunately we’re not going to see presidential candidates bucking that trend in Iowa. Maybe they’ll do it in other places in the country, but not in Iowa.

But Iowa corn farmer Larry Meints, who’s taken advantage of government incentives to build a small ethanol plant, believes corn-based fuel is sustainable, and subsidies are needed for weaning the nation from Middle East oil.

Larry Meints: It’s very important to the economy here in Iowa. Hopefully they won’t back away from it. I’m sure they won’t talk about it nearly as much in more urban states.

The Sierra Club’s national political director, Cathy Duvall, is in Iowa encouraging candidates to talk about the environmental costs to land and water of growing corn for fuel. She’s not hearing that.

Cathy Duvall: They do talk about what I kind of refer to as corn ethanol plus. That, yes, we need to have corn ethanol, isn’t it great for Iowa farmers and the Iowa economy? But we also do need to look forward to what is going to be the next crop that we’ll be using to produce alternative fuels, and how do we make this sustainable?

Voters will hear more on that from the candidates once they leave the Corn Belt, says Duvall. Meanwhile, every presidential wannabe who thinks he or she can win in Iowa is endorsing ethanol subsidies.

The exception is John McCain, who’s not counting on a win in Iowa — he’s concentrating on New Hampshire’s primary next week.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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