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Has big oil won the election?

Agriculture.com Staff 09/09/2008 @ 3:05pm

Last week's Republican convention was disappointing to ethanol industry advocates, who have always been able to count on support from leading members of the party, including Senators John Thune of South Dakota and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

In spite of such traditional support, the Republican convention adopted energy policy that has confused and disappointed ethanol supporters in the party, as well as leaders in the ethanol industry.

Tucked into the party platform's section on "Supporting our Agricultural Communities" was the sentence, "The U.S. government should end mandates for ethanol and let the free market work."

That drew criticism from several farm state leaders in the party, including Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, a farmer from Spirit Lake, Iowa.

Northey said that changes in the convention caused by Hurricane Gustav prevented public debate of the platform.

"Secretary Northey and other Republican leaders would have strongly opposed the plank's inclusion and remained committed to renewable fuels, including ethanol and biodiesel," his office said in a statement after the convention.

Northey later told Agriculture Online that he's not certain if that will cause Republican presidential candidate John McCain to lose votes among farmers.

McCain supports trade policies that encourage exports, Northey says. And "many farmers would probably prefer a McCain-led EPA."

Yet, McCain has made his opposition to subsidies for ethanol clear, including at a stop at the Iowa State Fair in August. "I don't believe in ethanol subsidies, but I believe in renewable fuels," he said then. McCain is also one of several U.S. senators who co-sponsored a bill by Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to freeze the renewable fuel standard (RFS) for ethanol at this year's level of 9 billion gallons. The energy bill passed in 2007 mandates 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol by 2015.

"Ethanol is very important to America's farmers and it's certainly important to the economy of Iowa," Northey says.

McCain does say he supports biofuels in general. And his party platform's section on energy, the GOP does call for continuing to develop biofuels, "especially cellulosic ethanol." And it supports moving quickly to flexible fuel vehicles.

Yet, Northey says, Midwestern farmers and Republican leaders are going to want more clarity on how McCain views the tax credit for ethanol and the renewable fuels standard.

"Certainly, I think Obama has been saying the right things as far as making the industry confident that he would support ethanol and that it will grow," Northey says.

Northey and others will be trying to get McCain's ear on this issue, he says.

"There are conversations going on about this, about the economic implications and the political implications of this," Northey tells Agriculture Online.

Others are more discouraged.

"To me, coming out of the convention, the Republican Party is definitely Big Oil," says Dave Nelson, A Belmond, Iowa, farmer who is chairman of the Midwest Grain Processors.

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