Boswell and Fallon clash over ethanol

The campaigns of Congressman Leonard Boswell and challenger Ed Fallon put out very different statements about ethanol on Thursday.

This isn’t the first time the candidates have clashed over agriculture policy. In general, Boswell is happy with our federal farm policies and touts how hard he is working to keep them the way they are.

Fallon would like to see a shift toward more support of local food networks and sustainable agriculture, as well as more regulations to address the economic, public health and environmental problems caused by confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Join me after the jump for more discussion of the ethanol issue.

This press release came from the Boswell campaign on May 15:

Fallon All over the Place on Ethanol

Des Moines, IA – Ed Fallon has thrown his hands up in the air over the ethanol issue.  Fallon is running for Congress in the nation’s leading ethanol producing state, and continues to alter his position on the issue.  Fallon was quoted in the Des Moines Register today stating he didn’t know if he would support a proposed freeze on the ethanol mandate. Fallon supported an ethanol mandate in 2006 when he was running for governor.  However, in a letter to the editor printed in the Christian Science Monitor titled “The Ethanol Myth,” Fallon stated, “Ethanol is a failure on many fronts.”

Congressman Boswell opposes the proposed ethanol mandate freeze, stating, “It would be a step in the wrong direction to put a freeze on the ethanol mandate.  Ethanol has been a boon to the farmers in this state, and halting the mandate will place an unnecessary financial strain on ethanol producers and Iowa farmers. An ethanol mandate freeze would have a tremendous negative impact on Iowa’s economy.”

As a state legislator, Fallon opposed tax incentives to spur the sale of ethanol-blended gasoline, and opposed tax credits for retailers who sell ethanol.   Congressman Boswell has consistently supported efforts to expand the use and development of ethanol as an alternative fuel source.

“It is pretty clear that Congressman Boswell has been a leader in developing alternative energies in Iowa.  Ed Fallon doesn’t even know where he is on the issue,” said Betsy Shelton, Boswell’s Communications Director.  “The people of the Third District need a leader on these important issues and they have that person in Congressman Boswell.”

That press release refers to a May 15 article in the Des Moines Register by Thomas Beaumont, called Fallon not sure about ethanol mandate. (The article has since been removed from the Des Moines Register’s website.) Fallon’s campaign issued a press release, which the newspaper published as this letter to the editor on May 16:

Fallon: Too simple to blame ethanol

During a meeting with the editorial board of the Register Wednesday, I was asked where I stood on proposed legislation to freeze the mandate on ethanol production. Having not seen the bill, I stated that I didn’t have an answer, but would get one. I e-mailed my response, but apparently the reporter didn’t see it. The result was a story and a headline that present an incomplete picture of my position.

A group of Republican senators is trying to get the EPA to freeze the mandate for corn-based ethanol fuel at the 2008 level, blaming the mandate for higher food prices. This is a simplistic and misleading analysis of the problem of higher food prices. It ignores three reasons for higher prices: The weak dollar, which is also partly responsible for higher oil and gas prices; the cost of transporting food, which rises along with fuel prices; and increased food demand in Asian countries.

So the proposed freeze may be politically satisfying to some, but it doesn’t fix anything.

Corn-based ethanol was a great way to kick off our efforts to develop biofuels. But, one of the features I like in the new farm bill is its move toward cellulosic ethanol production. As we have advanced in our technical knowledge of ethanol production, we’ve discovered new challenges that need to be addressed. These challenges need to be taken seriously, but they don’t negate the importance of weaning us off of oil, especially foreign oil.

– Ed Fallon, candidate for Congress, Des Moines.

There seems to have been a misunderstanding at the heart of the Register article that prompted the Boswell campaign’s press release (or else the newspaper would not have removed it from the website). I have not been able to find a link to the Christian Science Monitor letter cited in the Boswell campaign’s press release, so I don’t know when Fallon sent it or when it was published.

Reasonable minds can differ about the appropriate level of government support for ethanol producers. A strong case can be made that incentives the industry needed some years ago are no longer necessary. Recognizing this fact, the Congressional negotiators who hammered out the new farm bill “agreed to cut an ethanol tax credit previously considered off-limits”.

I don’t put ethanol in my car, partly because using it reduces mileage, and partly because the corn used to make ethanol is not currently grown in a sustainable way.

In fact, shifting to produce ethanol from cellulosic sources other than corn, as Fallon advocates, would be a far better way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

Most analyses indicate that corn ethanol delivers a 10 to 20 percent reduction in global warming emissions over its full lifecycle compared with gasoline. This reduction is modest because corn production requires a significant amount of fossil fuel inputs for farm operations and fertilizer production (generally natural gas). Corn production also generates a substantial amount of nitrous oxide, a global warming pollutant, as unused fertilizer breaks down in the field. In addition, many corn ethanol production facilities operate on natural gas; if new production facilities use coal instead, the emission benefits of corn ethanol could be reduced or eliminated.

Cellulosic ethanol can reduce lifecycle global warming emissions by as much as 80 to 90 compared with gasoline. Cellulosic materials require less fertilizer to grow and require less land in order to produce an equivalent amount of fuel. Additionally, the non-fermentable parts of the plant can be used as combustible fuel in place of fossil fuels.

The new farm bill approved by the U.S. House on Wednesday and the U.S. Senate on Thursday does include “incentives to expand the production of biofuels from crop residues and cellulosic sources other than grain,” which is good.

On the whole, though, I agree with those who say that the farm bill directs too much money toward people who don’t need it.

If you think our national policy on farm subsidies is working just fine, then Boswell is probably your candidate. I would prefer to be represented in Congress by someone who will advocate for different priorities in our agriculture policy.

Speaking of the farm bill, now that Congress has sent the final version to President Bush, what is keeping Boswell too busy to debate Fallon?  

  • Different levels of understanding

    Boswell is clearly in the Corn Promotion Board mode, seeing corn ethanol more or less as the final answer.  Fallon obviously has a better grasp of the ethanol situation and its many aspects.  He realizes corn ethanol is only a stepping stone on the way to better, more sustainable alternative fuels.  It really makes sense to push aggressively for cellulosic ethanol and other alternative feedstocks for biofuels.  And if the greenhouse gas angle was not a good enough reason, the food vs. fuel issue should definitely push us in that direction.  Fallon is also smart to point out that valid concerns about ethanol must be taken into consideration.  In the long term, that is in the best interest of the ethanol industry as well.

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