Officials: Iowa’s farmers, biofuels industry key to Biden-era climate efforts

The Des Moines City Council passed a resolution aimed at converting the whole city to renewable energy by 2035. (Image courtesy of NASA)

President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for the United States to rejoin an international climate change agreement is an opportunity for Iowa’s renewable energy industry and its farmers to lead efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, elected officials said this week. 

Despite President Donald Trump’s insistence that Biden wants to shut down the oil industry, which he doesn’t, Americans will be pumping fuel into their vehicles for decades to come, Iowa state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, told the Iowa Farmers Union on Tuesday. That is a selling point for the ethanol and biodiesel industries, which produce fuel that has less of an impact on the atmosphere, added Hogg, author of a book on addressing climate change. 

Hogg said the biofuels industry has over the years reduced its environmental impact. Industry groups note that production now uses less water and involves less emissions. 

“Unlike the renewable fuels industry, which is getting better, the oil industry is actually getting worse,” expanding drilling into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the tar sands of Canada, Hogg said.

Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the most recent international pact to address climate change through reducing carbon emissions. During the campaign, he also said he would quickly reinstate environmental protections that Trump removed. Trump announced shortly after taking office he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris agreement, in part because he feared U.S. businesses would suffer financially while other countries’ major emitters failed to make promised cuts.

The change in political leadership provides a good opportunity for Iowa’s largest-in-the-nation ethanol industry, Hogg said.

“This is a defining moment for our country and for our economy and for the climate,” Hogg said. “We need to say, ‘keep the oil in the ground.’ Part of the solution to that is homegrown renewable fuels that are continuing to reduce their environmental footprint.”

Des Moines City Councilman Josh Mandelbaum, who also appeared at the Iowa Farmers Union session, agreed that we’ll be burning fossil fuels for some time. He used his family as an example of the transition.

Mandelbaum said his family has an electric vehicle, and another that burns ethanol. They use the electric vehicle when they can, and while it’s charging, they use a vehicle that is supporting corn farmers by burning ethanol made of the grain. 

Mandelbaum, who was elected in 2017, has served on the council during a storm that dropped up to 10 inches of rain in a day in parts of the city, floods, and the August derecho, which left parts of the city without power for nearly a week. It took public works crews six weeks to pick up the downed trees and branches, while road projects were delayed. 

Climate models suggest Iowa is in for more severe weather in the future, Mandelbaum noted.

The city is considering Mandelbaum’s proposal to eventually have all homes and businesses run on power from non-carbon sources, such as wind and solar.

“Climate action is essential if we’re being a forward-looking community,” said Mandelbaum, who also is senior attorney for the Des Moines office of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center. “It is the existential threat that we all face.”

Mandelbaum said he has children ages four and six. “What motivates me doing this work is to leave them a better place to live, and you can’t do that without meaningful climate action,” he said. “And that is where the Trump administration has been particularly disappointing, pulling out of the Paris climate accord was a huge mistake. It was an abdication of every type of leadership — moral leadership, economic leadership, environmental leadership.”

With Biden’s inauguration in January, the nation could change directions, Mandelbaum said. “We have an opportunity to rejoin Paris, but that to me is the minimum,” he added.

Mandelbaum noted the city of Des Moines, with encouragement of Mayor Frank Cownie, has an ordinance requiring the owners of large buildings to track greenhouse gas emissions and is developing a long-term energy plan after years of making improvements in city operations. He also noted that the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) just launched its first electric buses.

Aaron Heley Lehman, president of Iowa Farmers Union, said the organization is hoping for a reversal of Trump’s climate approach. “The Iowa Farmers Union has placed a high priority on working on climate issues. Unfortunately, we know that our country has taken a step back by choosing to leave the Paris accord,” Lehman said. 

“Instead of being innovative and forward-thinking, the U.S. has pitted one against another in rural America,” Lehman said. “Instead of asking farmers to be seen as more the victims of climate change, we feel strongly that our farmers should be seen as innovators and leaders. The only way to address climate change in a meaningful way is to have farmers play a leading role and an innovating role.”