Iowa’s Biofuels Voice

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, has seen the U.S. ethanol industry grow from less than 2 billion gallons in 2000 to well over 13 billion gallons today. His focus now: growing the market and protecting the RFS.
By Ron Kotrba | December 19, 2013

After serving as communications director for the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington, D.C., Monte Shaw and his wife returned to the Midwest in 2005 to start a family. Fortunately, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association (IRFA) was searching for an executive director at the time. Shaw was a perfect fit for the job and the state organization has flourished under his leadership.   

Since joining the IRFA, what changes have you helped facilitate in the organization itself and in the state renewable fuels legislative complex? 

When I joined IRFA in 2005, the organization was transitioning from a period when Iowa Corn handled the association's day-to-day operations to where IRFA had dedicated staff. In 2005, it was me and Lucy Norton, who had worked for the Iowa Corn Growers for some time and helped form the the association. One of the first changes was to begin recruiting biodiesel members. There was some initial skepticism, but the IRFA board made it clear that both fuels would get fair treatment, and that’s been the case.

In 2007, Lucy and I decided a summit would be a good way to get our message out. It had no budget and was set up like someone’s summer vacation slideshow presentation. But 400 people showed up. Now, we’re holding the eighth annual Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit.

As for renewable fuels policy, the IRFA board felt that Iowa was behind other states like Minnesota. It was a clear priority to turn that around. In the eight years that I’ve lobbied, Iowa has passed four major pieces of biofuels policy. Now with the dramatic shift in federal policy, I think state programs will be more important than ever. So we’ll be busy at the statehouse in 2014.

How has Iowa been so successful without a state renewable fuels mandate?

Twice, there was a strong effort to pass an ethanol mandate (and once for biodiesel). Ultimately, even many of the rural legislators in Iowa didn’t want to go that route. It was a painful process. But I don’t think the effort was for naught because, to stop the mandate efforts, legislators looked to some aggressive incentives for retailers to install biodiesel and higher-blend ethanol infrastructure. Those programs have helped. Iowa has no plans to revisit fuel requirements. Our goal is to give consumers fuel choices. If someone wants to pay more for E0, so be it. But they should also have the option of paying less for E15 or E30 or E85. That's what Big Oil wants to prevent. 

What advice would you give other state organizations to help them achieve success? 

Every state needs to tailor its priorities and activities based on its resources. Another key aspect is unity. We’re most effective when all or nearly all of our members are pulling in the same direction. IRFA members know their state legislators. They have them tour the plants and meet the employees. They attend the legislators’ town hall meetings. They know their cell phone numbers. Iowa legislators know that when I talk to them at the Capitol, I’m really talking for the 10,000 Iowa households invested directly in ethanol or biodiesel plants and I’m talking for the thousands of employees at those plants. 

What are the greatest changes to the ethanol and biodiesel industries you have witnessed in your tenure with both the RFA and IRFA? 

When I went to work for RFA in 2000, the entire ethanol industry was producing about 1.6 billion gallons. In 2013, Iowa alone produced over 3.7 billion gallons. In 2000, there were a handful of plants operated by large agribusinesses and a handful of plants operated by farmers. There are more of both now but also several plants owned by folks in the petroleum industry. Nine large, state-of-the-art ethanol plants in Iowa are owned by refiners. I’d like to think that our shared interests in state regulatory issues and other things could help us work together. But for now, we’re on opposite sides of the federal RFS and there’s not much they think we can do for them. It’s also been exciting to watch the biodiesel industry grow in Iowa. There’s been change and growth and some consolidation, but the heart and soul of Iowa’s ethanol and biodiesel industry is still local, agricultural and optimistic.  

In the early days, a major driver in developing ethanol was creating a value-added product from surplus U.S. corn supplies to raise the price and boost farmers’ incomes. But  when this happened years later, many took notice and complained that ethanol was responsible for world hunger. What are your thoughts on this? 

This is one of the most frustrating issues that Big Oil fabricated and “encouraged” others to promote. Mostly, this argument is carried on by people not interested in the truth but with other agendas. My favorite example of this was a New York Times article claiming that both cheap corn in the 1980s starved the Guatemalans, while now the “expensive” corn in 2012 was starving the Guatemalans. How could both be true? Only 11.6 cents of each dollar spent on food today goes to a farmer. And less than 3 cents of that goes to a corn farmer. What might seem like a big shift in corn prices just doesn’t translate into the price people pay for food. Energy, specifically oil, plays a much bigger role. 2013 will not just be the largest corn harvest in U.S. history, but also the largest corn harvest in world history. In 2012, Ethiopia—the poster child of world starvation—actually produced enough grain to establish a formalized grain trade. The facts are clear. Biofuels do not hurt the world’s poor and, in fact, may be one of the best tools for creating a better future for the world’s poor and hungry.

How would you characterize Big Oil’s tactics to discredit the RFS and ethanol as a fuel? 

Shameless, predictable and occasionally effective. The 2014 RFS proposal by EPA shows that the Obama administration bought the Big Oil bluff that there really was a blend wall. Big Oil is the most profitable and powerful industry in the history of the world. It is not easy to try to level the playing field against them. I’m frustrated right now because Big Oil’s success on the RFS means consumers pay more for gas, rural America could teeter on the brink of another farm crisis, and our young men and women will still have to put themselves in harm’s way to defend oil shipments.

How important are state renewable fuel policies and efforts under the scenario of a robust federal RFS? And how does the role of states change if federal policies change?

State policies are important either way. Even with a robust RFS, we need state laws and rules to allow, even encourage, E15, E85 and biodiesel. We have to have leaders to show that when offered these fuels, consumers will respond positively. That’s a big goal of Iowa’s state policies. It’s starting, but we need more. And if the RFS is ultimately gutted through the proposed rules, then state-level policies become even more important.