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Why a Koch Brothers Front Is Blasting Ethanol in Iowa

By Jen Boynton

A strange press release crossed my desk today, from the American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF). The conservative think tank was tooting its horn about a new ad campaign it launched in Iowa to educate people on the environmental ills of ethanol. Pro-growth economists touting anti-corn environmentalism in Iowa. What?

Ethanol has always been a sticky wicket for environmentalists. While biofuels are absolutely a viable source of energy for transportation, ethanol usually comes from corn, which might not be the most efficient stock for the fuel. Commercial corn is a mono-crop, so support for this cash crop mostly means supporting a type of farming at odds with sustainable agriculture. Corn farming contributes to water pollution and algal blooms from pesticides and fertilizers, respectively.

On the other hand, we need to get off oil, and ethanol has a lower global warming potential than fossil fuels. But from a systems-thinking perspective, it can be a tough pill to swallow to use a food source to make energy when hundreds of millions of people don't have enough food to eat.

So, why ethanol? Well, that's a political story. Iowa has produced more corn than any other state for at least the last 20 years: 2.4 billion bushels of corn in 2014, three times as much as the whole country of Mexico. Iowa also happens to be home to the first official vote in the presidential primaries. That's why so much money and political attention flows into a state with 3.1 million residents (about 1 percent of the U.S. population). So, it's safe to say that no one wants to mess with Iowa's farmers.

But does anyone outside the industry really love ethanol? The subsidies the industry has received as a part of the Renewable Portfolio Standard keep it cheaper than oil -- which makes it a threat to oil. It turns out ethanol has also caught the ire of the recreational boat people and the trade association for chain restaurants. Which is how we come to have the ACCF blasting the Iowa airwaves with an environmental screed against ethanol six days before the Iowa caucuses.


In case you  were wondering, the ACCF does not have a strong record on the environment. In fact, it fought against AB 32, California's landmark cap-and trade-bill, in 2012. Greenpeace calls it a "Koch Industries Climate Denial Front Group" because the famous brothers -- key funders of the right-wing infrastructure -- have donated $375,000 to the group over the years. Here's what Source Watch has to say about ACCF:

American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF) is a think tank that prides itself on "economic growth through sound tax, regulatory, and environmental policies." ACCF is a very influential in Washington D.C. with ACCF's President Mark Bloomfield as being, "one of the most influential figures operating behind the scenes in the Congress," Robert Novak, 1997.

ACCF has a conservative perspective of economic policy and favors policies that favor big business. ACCF's Officers and Board of Directors included former high-ranking politicians (predominantly Republican) in the U.S. government along with representatives of industry associations, including individuals from the American Petroleum Institute, Principal Financial Group, American Chemistry Council, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Business Conference, American Forest & Paper Association, Edison Electric Institute, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and other pro-industry trade associations and corporations. Individuals from the American Enterprise Institute, and the Hoover Institution are members of ACCF's Board of Scholars.

So, why did these guys release a pro-environment screed against ethanol? As usual, wherever there are Koch ties, there is something fishy going on.

In this case, ACCF is representing the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) and the National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR) on this ad campaign. NMMA is the trade association for recreational boating. Why the heck do boaters care about ethanol? Well, it turns out that ethanol can stall engines of outboard motors. No wonder the recreational boating people don't like it.

The restaurant industry, NCCR, obviously has a stake in corn prices, since they will impact the raw cost of goods throughout the food sector from high-fructose corn syrup, the main ingredient in everything from soda to beef, which mostly eats corn these days. If corn is used for ethanol, that will, they fear, raise food prices.

None of the three groups is particularly environmentally-focused. So, why focus on the environment in their ad? Well, "Ethanol is bad for our business interests," doesn't have the same ring to it. It comes down to business as usual, which is to say, "money talks."

Image credits: American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF)

Jen Boynton headshotJen Boynton

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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