Ethanol and Small Town Politics

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Every so often, I ask my fiancé for a prompt when I am faced with a blank page and a looming deadline. This week, when I had scanned the news, I wondered about another post on environmental justice (the Ogallala Aquifer being always on my mind)  his prompt was, “Ethanol.”

A daunting topic, to say the least.

Ethanol, produced primarily from corn in the United States, is a biofuel commonly used as an additive in gasoline. Ethanol production has been a source of political contention for a long time, as incentives have been in place for years for farmers to produce corn for ethanol production rather than for food consumption. In recent years, we have seen debates about the relative merits of corn versus sugar cane ethanol (Brazil, the other major global ethanol producer, uses sugar cane), the question of using arable land for ethanol production while there are global food shortages, as well as the broader cycle of pollution and energy consumption that goes into making ethanol.

So, when Preston says, “Ethanol,” my brain plays a game of word association: Energy. EPA. Pollution. Stewardship. Globalization.

I could write about any of these, but I want to focus instead on a small story that caught my eye, the kind of smaller-town politics that are more significant than we often allow.

The Des Moines Register ran a story not long ago about Emmetsburg, Iowa - where two major plants were being built for cellulosic ethanol production. “Poet [one of the companies building a plant]’s Project Liberty is one of three large-scale U.S. plants that will begin making cellulosic ethanol this year, using corncobs and husks collected from area farmers’ fields. It has taken a decade of research and $120 million in government subsidies at this plant alone to bring the ultra-green fuel to commercial-scale production” the article reported. Like many of the green technologies that have been piloted in recent years, cellulosic ethanol fosters some excitement not only for the lessened environmental impact, but also on the energy and jobs created by the construction of the plants.

Emmetsburg, back in February when the story ran, would likely be among the most excited. New jobs and a new economic boost, some answers to the ongoing debate about growing corn for food versus for fuel - what could be better?

But the story doesn’t stop there. The very next paragraph brings a few rain clouds into this sunny landscape, “but just as a new industry for Iowa is about to take root, a proposed change in government policy could limit demand for ethanol and send new plants and jobs to other countries. Think Brazil, China or European nations.” The potential drop in the demand for ethanol comes from the EPA proposes to lower the standard for how much ethanol is blended with gasoline. According to the article, this is a “bending to market realities: The mandates were too aggressive and hard to reach, given that autos have become more fuel-efficient.”

This means that the demand for ethanol - corn-based or non-food based - will shift from the United States to other parts of the world, leaving Iowa taxpayers, who invested about $20 million in the plant projects, in the lurch.

The story brings together a lot of the varied questions that color political life in communities: the local economy and investment, the environmental concerns and energy independence concerns, the growing corn as food versus fuel, the relationship between the federal government and the local town. The federal government backed the program significantly, so changing the ethanol mandates raises questions for those who have a lot riding in the program’s outcomes - the town of Emmetsburg, for example, or many small towns like it in Iowa and other major corn producing states.

So now I want to pose the question, “how should we care about the stories of small towns like these in the course of our national discourse?”

If Preston hadn’t suggested “ethanol” as my prompt for this piece, I might have never searched for it in the news and never known that Emmetsburg was facing these questions about cellulosic ethanol plants. I would have stopped at a Washington Post story or a New York Times article on the EPA mandate and called it good.

Small towns and local politics are crucial to understanding the things we read about. For Emmetsburg, the EPA mandate change could mean the second plant doesn’t open there. It could mean there are fewer jobs created. It could also mean they don’t face risks of soil damage or oversupply of cellulosic ethanol in a corn-based market. Seeing what it means for the EPA mandate change to pass, or not, is different when I know the depth of that change in a particular circumstance. I don’t think the circumstance can or should be used as the universal ace card when making policy decisions, but how often do we forget that such stories in the midst of our decision-making?

What role do you think small town stories like Emmetsburg should play in national debates?

-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at and tweets at @hilarysherratt