Democrats can get a second look in farm country with clean energy
Despite President Trump’s frequent false claims to the contrary, his victory was one of the thinnest in history — famously coming down to only about 77,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (out of well over 12 million votes cast in those states). Just as famously, those razor-thin margins were compiled through having a roughly 2-to-1 advantage among rural voters in those states.
While by no means the only factor in the 2020 election, as I’ve mentioned before, there is no realistic path to re-election for Trump if this rural firewall breaks down.
As recent reporting has shown, Trump’s inept policies in farm country are resulting in real pain and farmers are no longer holding their tongues. For me, it’s starting to look more and more like elections in the past where Democrats have made real inroads in rural America. Patty Judge recently noted, “This is an opportunity for Democrats to win back the heartland and the White House,” — and several 2020 candidates seem to agree.
Following a Democratic sweep of Congress in 2006 that was keyed by wins in rural America, from the Great Plains to the Midwest farm belt, the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) set about memorializing a big part of the bargain candidates across the country had made with farm country voters.
Led in large part by Democratic senators from rural states like North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Montana, they found a bipartisan consensus for extending and expanding the recently-passed Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) to more fully displace oil in our economy while adding a greenhouse gas standard that would steer innovation in biofuels toward solving the climate crisis and ensure rural America had a prominent place in the transition to a clean energy economy. It was a hopeful moment in the quest for an enduring consensus approach to solving this global problem while securing new jobs and solid career prospects in farm country through the transition.
Perhaps it was the fear of this new political coalition that set the oil industry off, or maybe it was simple greedy resistance to any potential loss of market share to American farmers, but the industry set about almost immediately to unravel this deal. Now, with climate deniers in Congress and in the White House, the oil industry has the upper hand.
Trump — despite his hollow promises to “take care of our farmers” — is attempting to drive the final nail in the coffin of the RFS and, with it, take away one of the last lifelines rural America has to a return to prosperity. His latest actions to further degrade the RFS through radically exploiting the “small refinery exemption waiver” process speak much louder than his empty words. He has made clear again and again that he has no intention of supporting farmers, particularly when it comes to creating low-carbon biofuels that would compete with his fossil fuel funders.
Beyond kicking farmers when they can least afford it, this latest broadside further undermines the path forward for rural America that we had previously been on while attempting to box us into the fossil fuel dead-end advocated by the oil industry. They would accomplish one of their cherished goals: to remove renewable fuels from our collective toolbox — one of the key resources we have to fight climate change.
It has been heartening to see so many of the Democratic contenders for 2020 recognize the critical role agriculture will play in any serious attempt to reverse our dangerous course toward catastrophic climate change. As long-standing stewards of the land, farmers know how to think about long-term consequences and are our greatest source of innovation when it comes to conserving our precious resources. It is imperative to harness their ingenuity and dedication by creating ways for them to realize value from carbon-efficient farming and from producing clean alternatives to fossil fuels.
It’s not only smart policy to bring them into the fold, as it was in 2006, it’s smart politics — and with the Trump administration so badly letting the mask drop on their anti-rural agenda, the opening might be greater than its ever been. It’s never been more clear that the interests of farm country do not align with the fossil fuel-powered big donor agenda of the White House, so what better time for Democrats to show they get how important rural America is to a clean energy transition?
From farm-compatible wind and solar electricity, to carbon-sequestering farming practices, to biofuels that can break the oil-industry’s monopoly control over how we move over land, sea, and air, the practical and political path to a clean energy economy goes through rural America. With the Trump administration having its head in the sand on this, like so many other issues, it’s a golden opportunity for Democrats to step up and move us all forward. The early signs are good — let’s hope the momentum continues.
Mike Carr is executive director of New Energy America. He previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and as senior counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
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