Bernie Sanders Embraces Corn Power

Will the Vermont senator's thumbs-up for ethanol spell problems for Hillary Clinton in the heartland?

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Corn grows in a field August 17, 2011 near St. Olaf, Iowa.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders's admiration for corn-based fuel is winning him some praise in unusual places.

The self-declared socialist candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination won glowing praise today from America's Renewable Future, a pro-ethanol group drumming up biofuels support, with campaign-style offices in every Iowa county. The group is headed by Eric Branstad, son of Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad, and is allied with influential Iowa political activist and GOP mega-donor Bruce Rastetter in promoting the fuel.

“We thank Sen. Sanders for his appreciation of the crucial part biofuels play in the creation of a sustainable energy future,” said Patty Judge, a former Democratic lieutenant governor of Iowa and a co-chair of America's Renewable Future, in a statement released by the group. “Advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol have been a runaway success in Iowa, thanks to a strong RFS that created a partnership” between corn and other renewables, she said.

The statement praising Sanders came after a Sunday interview on Iowa TV in which the Vermont senator embraced corn-based ethanol and the controversial Renewable Fuels Standard. He called the state that is the top U.S. ethanol producer—and home to the caucuses that will kick off the race for the White House on Feb. 1—“one of the leaders in the country” in renewables.

“As somebody who believes climate change is the greatest global crisis that we face, I think it’s absolutely imperative that we move away from fossil fuel, from oil, from coal, move to energy efficiency and move to sustainable energies. And Iowa, by the way, in general is doing a very good job,” Sanders said.

Sanders didn't think ethanol, which, in the U.S., is based almost exclusively on corn, is perfect—he said sources other than grain need more emphasis. But his embrace of a fuel that's at the heart of Iowa's economy could cause heartburn for his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Clinton's measured pro-biofuels position, staked out in a Cedar Rapids Gazette op-ed last May, is that “America’s farmers and rural communities have to be at the heart” of renewable energy efforts.

Ethanol, a darling of the 2000s, has had a tougher time in the 2010s. A longtime tax credit and tariff expired in 2011, and resistance toward the Renewable Fuels Standard—the focus of federal biofuels support since 2007—led to a cut in government use requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency in May. Corn-based ethanol has come under fire not only from fossil fuel manufacturers, but some scientists and environmentalists who argue that it drives up food prices and nullifies its environmental benefits because of the energy required to manufacture it.

As it did with Clinton last May, America's Renewable Future invited Sanders to tour an ethanol plant.

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