Free market conservatism collided with farm-state jockeying this weekend in Iowa, where several GOP presidential hopefuls said they support the federal fuel mandate that has boosted Iowa’s all-important corn market — arguably at the expense of consumers’ wallets and engines.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham all told a Saturday gathering in Des Moines that they support the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, that has required corn-based ethanol to be blended into almost every gallon of gasoline sold in the U.S.
“In general, on any issue, I am someone who believes in a free and open market. I don’t like a whole lot of government interference,” Mr. Walker said at the inaugural Iowa Agricultural Summit, a year out from the state’s caucuses that kick of the presidential primary season. “But I do believe … it is an access issue, and so it is something I am willing to go forward on, continuing the Renewable Fuel Standard.”
The RFS is one of the early dividing lines in the jockeying among the party’s White House contenders, but the candidates who swung through Des Moines on Saturday also aired often-competing ideas on everything from immigration to free trade and food labeling.
There was also division over whether the federal wind production tax credit, which expired last year, should be renewed.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said he supports the alternative energy industry, but added that Washington should not be in the business of picking winners and losers.
“When it comes to energy, I think we should have an all-of-the-above approach, but it should be driven by the market,” Mr. Cruz said, adding that the “easy thing” to do would be to voice support for wind tax credits and the biofuels mandate.
Responding to concerns that the petroleum industry is trying to block access to the market, Mr. Cruz said ethanol companies have legal protections, even without the RFS.
“If you have the refiners and gas stations working with big oil to cut off access, there are remedies in the federal antitrust laws to deal with that,” the senator said. “But I think the right answer is to enable biofuels to keep innovating, keep producing and not have Washington dictating what is happening.”
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry delivered a similar message on biofuels, saying “this is substantially more a state issue than it is a national issue.”
The comments put the Texans at odds with a number of their potential rivals for the 2016 GOP nomination, including Mr. Walker and Mr. Bush, the two front-runners in early national polling.
The politics of the law, passed in 2005 and expanded in 2007, run hot in Iowa. The Hawkeye State is the nation’s largest producer of corn, the biggest source for ethanol in the United States.
Opponents say the mandate reduces the incentive for biofuel producers to cut costs, causes higher fuel and food prices and damages some engines.
But on Saturday, Gov. Terry E. Branstad, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Steve King were among the elected leaders from Iowa who took aim at oil companies and went to bat for the mandate.
Mr. Branstad said, “Don’t mess with RFS,” while Mr. King said, “It is the Holy Grail, and I will defend it.”
Bruce L. Rastetter, the Agriculture Summit’s event host and a major GOP donor who made a fortune from agriculture — including ethanol — supports RFS.
Still, some polls before the 2014 midterm elections found that likely voters in Iowa were skeptical of federal mandates, and nearly half of them said they don’t support the RFS even if it helps Iowa farmers.
Mr. Bush said that while the mandate has worked, it also should be phased out, however, he was unsure when.
“I would suggest to you, ultimately, whether it is ethanol or any other alternative fuel, renewable or otherwise, the markets ultimately are going to have to decide,” Mr. Bush said. “So at some point we will see a reduction of the RFS need, because ethanol will be such a valuable part of the energy feedstock for our country. Whether that is in 2022 or sometime in the future, I don’t know.”
Both Mr. Walker and Mr. Bush said the Environmental Protection Agency could bring more certainty to the alternative energy market by setting new targets for the level of biofuel required to be blended into fuel. For several years the agency has delayed a decision.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also backed the RFS, as did Mr. Graham, a South Carolina senator who has made national security his top issue as he ponders a campaign bid.
He said the RFS has helped reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil.
“Every gallon of ethanol you produce here in Iowa is one less gallon you have to buy from people who hate your guts,” Mr. Graham said.