Tuesday, January 18, 2022

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Guest Commentary

Costs of ethanol should not include Iowa principles


We have another chapter about right-wing attacks on cherished Iowa principles and how institutions and people who should know better let them get away with it.               

This chapter begins with a member of the Iowa Board of Regents and a spokesman for the ethanol industry upset with a University of Iowa professor for something they thought he said about ethanol at a conference in Washington, DC.                

An aide for Gov. Terry Branstad says emails from the two were merely intended to share information with Dr. Jerald Schnoor.              

What information did they wish to share? Regent Bruce Rastetter — who co-founded and was CEO of a major ethanol producer — would tell Schnoor that he is “uninformed.” Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, would tell Schnoor that he is “an embarrassment” to the University. Shaw also said Schnoor had called “for an end to ethanol production in Iowa,” but what Schnoor questions is expansion of current production methods.                

In his email, Shaw also refers to a New York professor at the conference as “an East Coast, Ivory Tower #@%@#@#$.”                


University of Iowa President Sally Mason, armed with the emails, essentially tells Schnoor, “Why don’t you talk to these nice people?”                

Much of this was reported by Perry Beeman in a Feb. 20 article in The Des Moines Register.                

It follows similar episodes in which the Iowa GOP is messing with state universities the way the party’s right wing has attacked the Iowa Judiciary.               

For openers, Branstad named Rastetter and Craig Lang, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, to the Board of Regents; then Regents president David Miles and president pro-tem Jack Evans were pushed out of office ahead of time so Lang could be president and Rastetter president pro-tem.             

Soon, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin has second thoughts about donating his papers to Iowa State for fear of restrictions as to what access and freedom scholars would be allowed.                

Branstad weighed into the Harkin controversy on the side of Rastetter and Lang, declaring that University researchers speak with “one voice,” presumably in favor of Big Agriculture.                

In the latest flap, Shaw got upset not at what Schnoor said, but with a report of the conference in Scientific American or a summary of that story in a biofuels publication.                

Schnoor’s comments pointed out what everyone knows: A lot of water is consumed in ethanol production.                

The person damned in Shaw’s email as #@%@#@#$ is Dr. Theresa Selfa, an associate professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She studied the impacts of corn ethanol on small towns in Kansas and Iowa. Quoting from the Jan. 28th issue of Scientific American, “…(S)he found communities were often proud of the biofuel plants, despite the perceived impacts on the water supply… Also, she said that relative to the environmental impacts of other industries …‘the ethanol industry seemed pretty benign.’ ”                

But Selfa cautioned that “biofuels are not an overwhelming win-win for rural communities.” Apart from being told about Shaw’s comments, she wrote in an email, “I haven’t had any feedback…”                

Iowa Democratic legislators now want to prevent regents from foisting their agendas onto the universities. Not on the table is legislation to give university administrators the backbone to stand up to regents when they’re off base.                

For a model on how the system should work consider Drake University and the late Dr. Dean Wright, a professor of sociology and an authority on juvenile justice and homelessness. Wright spoke and acted on what his research and conscience told him about those controversial issues. Yet his wife and colleague at Drake, Dr. Susan Wright recalls, “I frankly do not remember anyone contacting the university about his activities. It is possible that it happened, but since our deans, provost and president would not bow to such things, it might not have become a big deal…”                

Still, you can’t make up stuff like the Rastetter/Shaw machinations. Who would want to? CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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