Ernst, Greenfield spar over which candidate best supports ethanol, agriculture

Ethanol production has been cut in half during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, trailing Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield by a slim margin in at least one poll, staged a Zoom news conference Monday featuring agriculture leaders who accused Greenfield of being unprepared to represent Iowa farm interests. 

The Ernst supporters included ethanol company representatives, Iowa Agriculture Mike Naig and the president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association. 

Sen. Joni Ernst speaks during a video her office produced about her tele-town hall on May 20, 2020.

“Unfortunately, Theresa Greenfield just continues to demonstrate how unprepared she is to be a United States senator,” Naig said. “The truth is, Joni has been fighting absolutely relentlessly to protect and promote Iowa’s ethanol and biodiesel industry for years, and her opponent seems to have just started paying attention here in the past couple of months.”

After the Ernst news conference, Greenfield’s spokeswoman, Izzi Levy, said the senator is looking for political cover after voting to confirm U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for oil companies. 

“Instead of following through on her empty threat to demand the resignation of the fossil fuel lobbyist she voted for to run the EPA, Sen. Ernst is engaging in increasingly desperate election-year stunts. Sen.  Ernst’s attempts at distraction don’t do anything to protect the Iowa farmers and biofuels producers who continue to struggle as the EPA threatens to green-light another 52 (Renewable Fuel Standard) waivers,” Levy said. 

“Iowans aren’t interested in Ernst’s political games — they just want to know why she keeps siding with her Big Oil donors at the expense of our farm economy,” Levy added.

Theresa Greenfield is a Democrat running for Iowa’s U.S. Senate seat. (Photo by: Theresa Greenfield campaign)

In mid-June, the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll reported Greenfield was leading Ernst by 3 percentage points — within the margin of error.

Since then, Ernst and Greenfield have sparred over who best represents ethanol interests, who is more dedicated to ousting Wheeler, and who is most in touch with Iowa voters.

“It’s only recently that she has been engaging in the (Renewable Fuel Standard),” Ernst said. “She’s a real estate executive from Des Moines. I know she probably hasn’t maintained contact with her rural industries, but she does need to understand the significance of them. She’s really late to the game.”

Greenfield has been criticizing Ernst for more than a year for voting to confirm Wheeler.

Ernst took to Twitter last week to note her opposition to new waiver applications that would reduce the market for ethanol and harm “the interest of Iowa’s farmers and rural communities who rely on the biofuel industry.”

Greenfield tweeted in response: “It’s an election year so Sen. Ernst is trying to run from her record. But she voted for this fossil fuel lobbyist so she owns his disastrous policies. Iowa’s won’t forget. Wheeler needs to resign.” 

Ernst said not only has she — along with fellow Iowan and GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley and others — pressured Wheeler to block the exemptions, they teamed with President Donald Trump to successfully push for year-round use of 15% ethanol blends, or E-15. Ernst noted that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in the fall election, had failed to act on E-15. 

Ernst said she also pushed Trump not to appeal a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision ruling against EPA’s handling of the waivers, and the president let the decision stand. Critics have said EPA’s consideration of new exemptions flouts that court decision.

“I have been vying for the Iowa biofuels industry for years,” Ernst said in the Monday news conference. “I am a relentless fighter for the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

Both candidates tout their rural roots.

Greenfield’s campaign materials describe her childhood on a farm near Bricelyn, Minnesota, which is northwest of Mason City, Iowa, near Interstate Highway 90. She has owned her own development company and previously was president of real-estate firm Colby Interests, based in the Des Moines suburb of Windsor Heights.

Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard who grew up on a farm near Red Oak, Iowa, during her previous Senate campaign bragged about her hog castration skills, saying she would “make them squeal” in Washington. Greenfield has contended that Ernst instead has supported Big Oil and other traditional powers. 

Mike Jerke, president and CEO of Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy, a Council Bluffs ethanol plant, said Wheeler’s move to consider exemptions is “not grounded in law.”

That leaves ethanol plants, which in some cases are run by farmer co-ops, looking for help in Washington. “We aren’t Big Oil,” Jerke said. “We don’t have that kind of lobbying effort.”

Delayne Johnson, CEO of Quad County Corn Processors in Galva, thanked Ernst for her work on a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, which takes effect July 1. His company exports a large share of its ethanol to Canada. 

He added that Ernst recently visited Ida County and helped work through the regulations that allow ethanol plants to manufacture hand sanitizers to help fight COVID-19, at a time when ethanol production has fallen with lower demand as more people stay home. 

“I am concerned that Greenfield does not have this knowledge and won’t be able to represent us well,” Johnson said. 

Mike Paustian, president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said Ernst was there to help hog producers when the new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico was in negotiations and when COVID-19 disrupted the food chain.

“It’s really heartening for those of us on the farm to know that we have folks who are, are well-informed about what’s going on on the farm, but also interested in what needs to be done to help producers move forward,” Paustian said.

Perry Beeman
Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.