Despite his visits to Iowa, President Trump “seems to be out of touch with what really matters out in the countryside,” said Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary in the Obama era, on Monday. Vilsack was part of a line-up of Iowa Democrats to criticize Trump for his opposition to wind energy and for insufficient support of corn ethanol. Iowa is a leader in both.
Vilsack said ethanol, a Farm Belt favorite, and wind power were complementary industries for rural economic growth. “They are a reflection of the Biden vision of how you revitalize the rural economy,” said Vilsack.
Four of the five top states for wind generation of electricity — Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and California — are in the Plains or western Corn Belt. Wind generation accounts for 7% of U.S. electricity and 42% in Iowa, according to a trade group, the American Wind Energy Association.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is scheduled to campaign in Iowa on Friday, his first visit since the first-in-the-nation caucuses that opened the election season on Feb. 3. Trump held an airport rally in Des Moines on Oct. 14. He easily won Iowa in 2016; it is a battleground state in this election.
“Nobody has ever done (more) for Iowa and the Farm Belt and the farmers and all. No more estate taxes. No more anything. I saved ethanol. Ethanol is saved,” said the president at the rally. Trump cited his approval of year-round sales of E15, a higher blend of ethanol into gasoline, and a grant program to help pay for installation of blender pumps and storage tanks for higher-blend biofuels.
During an internet news conference, Iowa farmer Pam Johnson, a former president of the National Corn Growers Association, faulted the Trump administration for issuing dozens of waivers that exempted small oil refineries from the Renewable Fuel Standard — “4 billion gallons of ethanol demand destruction.” Farm groups and ethanol makers say the administration should end the RFS exemptions and announce soon the biofuel blend requirements for 2021. Oil-state senators have asked for conciliatory treatment of the oil industry as it recovers from low gasoline demand.
In a televised debate with Biden last week, Trump said wind power was too expensive to be practical, lethal for birds, and a source of air pollution during manufacture of the turbines that produce electricity. “It’s got a lot of problems,” said the president. “The fumes coming up to make these massive windmills is more than anything that we’re talking about with natural gas.”
“The costs of energy from wind and solar have gone down to, or nowadays less than, coal and nuclear and at most times of the day, less than (natural) gas,” said John Norris, a former commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Vilsack and Norris said farmers and landowners collect annual rent from land occupied by the turbines, which also are a source of tax revenue for local governments.
The criticism of Trump over wind power was a new facet of Democratic challenges to the president’s popularity in rural areas. Democrats previously scored him on biofuels and management of the pandemic. Rural voters were key in the 2016 election, supporting Trump by 2-to-1. Democrats are trying to narrow the gap this year.
Half of rural Americans will vote for Trump this year compared to 32% for Biden, with 11% undecided, according to a Pulse of Rural America poll by Zogby Analytics. Participants in the poll said they would vote in a similar way in congressional races, 49% for Republicans and 31% for Democratic candidates. The three leading issues for rural voters were the economy, health care, and gun rights.
Some 49% of rural residents and farmers said agriculture was in worse shape than four years ago; 33% said it was better. Republicans were slightly more optimistic, 40% say the sector is in better condition.