Former Governor Vilsack talks energy with The Mac Weekly

Zac Farber

Friday, November 7, 2008

Former Democratic Governor of Iowa Tom Vilsack came to campus Oct. 31 to speak on the topic of "Confronting Climate Change: What Voters Need to Know." Before his lecture he sat down with The Mac Weekly to answer questions about ethanol, politics and the possibility of a Cabinet appointment.The Mac Weekly: After you withdrew from the presidential race, you endorsed [Sen] Hillary Clinton [D-N.Y.].

Tom Vilsack: I just got off the phone from talking with her right before you came in.


Do you still think she would be the best president?

I have a lot of respect for Sen. Clinton and she is an extraordinary, extraordinary person. You know [President-elect Barack] Obama's [D-Ill.] campaign is a reflection of the kind of leader he would be, and I don't think I've ever seen a campaign that is run as effectively as the one he has run. He has surrounded himself with very good people, and they are people that have very little ego, which is unusual in politics, and focused on the goal, which is to get him elected and change the country. So I've been very impressed with the campaign, and I would say that the Senate will need a lioness, and Sen. [Ted] Kennedy [D-Mass.]-as you know he's quite sick, and at some point in time he may not be able to function in the same way he's functioned over the past 40 years. I believe that Sen. Clinton is uniquely qualified to fill that rather large void in the Senate, so we get kind of the best of both worlds.


There has been a lot of speculation lately that you are on the short list for agriculture secretary. Is that something you're interested in?

Let me just simply say, you don't have a lot of control over those kinds of decisions. Sen. Obama has-again showing the way in which he operates-a separate, a completely separate and distinct, transition team that is in the process of preparing should he win on Tuesday to have him hit the ground running Wednesday morning, as it should be. The country needs change and the country needs change right now. I don't know what those plans are, and I will tell you my focus-totally and completely-today, tomorrow, the next day, Monday, Tuesday is going to be on doing everything I can to make sure he is the next president and then I will be absolutely confident that he is going to pick some really good people.


Would you be interested in the position if it was offered?

Well, you know, I'm really not comfortable answering that question because a) it is presumptuous and b) he has suggested that we all ought to be focused on winning the election and not talking about after the election. You're talking to a guy who was way behind in my first election for governor. So I'm a little leery of talking about Wednesday, I think we need to be focused on Tuesday.


What do you think the next agriculture secretary's priorities should be, whether it's you or somebody else?

Well, I will tell you that it's a department that impacts every American. Where do you start? You have an international food crisis. Sen. Obama has talked about the use of soft power, and that would be an opportunity to address in a significant way a new day in America, a new approach.

You've got renewable energy, which the secretary of energy obviously is going to be involved in, but the secretary of agriculture is also going to be involved in it. How do you accelerate the research and development that gets you to second-generation bio-fuels?

You have the reauthorization of the school nutrition program. You have to be focused on whether we are doing right by our children in schools across America in terms of nutritious food that we subsidize and we provide in school lunch programs.

There is the issue of the forest system in the country. Most people don't realize this, but the Department of Agriculture has authority over the forest service. So you have all these wildfires. Why do you have wildfires? I would argue that climate change is one of the reasons. You've got people building these multimillion dollar houses in and around the forests because it's a really great place to look at. So what do you do to protect the homes and at the same time make sure the forests are reforested and we continue to have this wonderful asset? And, how do you incorporate all of that into an energy plan because you realize that trees are absorbers of carbon and crops are absorbers of carbon and you've got to create opportunity here for offsets and carbon sinks. So are we doing what we need to do in terms of adequate budgets for the forest service. Is it right to take the forest fire fighting expense out of the general operating budget of the forest service, and when you do, that means you have substantially less money for conservation, for watershed protection, for replanting the forest, for creating strips, buffer areas, around these highly populated and highly expensive homes that are being built.


There is an issue of food security and food safety. We have an odd system in America. The USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] basically takes a look at meat, poultry and fish, I think, in terms of protecting it-the safety and security of it-but you have the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, providing safety and security of every other type of food product. Well, is there overlap? Is there inconsistency in the way these folks inspect plants and facilities? Should there be some coordination? Should there be some consolidation? So that's an issue that will have to be addressed.


So there are a lot of issues that that department must deal with, and they're really important because everybody's got to eat.


You're coming to campus to talk about representatives with pragmatic views on climate change?

I think it's the single most important domestic issue facing the country.


Is it a partisan issue?

It shouldn't be. But I think it has, over the course of this campaign, somewhat developed into one. The sense that it is intertwined with the economy and energy and foreign policy. There's a clear distinction between the Democratic view on many of those issues and the Republican view. Just to take energy for example, it's fairly clear that Sen. [John] McCain's [R-Ariz.] primary focus has been on increasing the oil supply and access to oil in this country by suggesting we should drill in more places and try to have more oil. Gov. [Sarah] Palin [R-Aka.], when she gave her energy speech this week, focused on that. To me that is not the right answer for the country and Sen. Obama has been very clear about the fact that we have to move away from oil, and he's right about that because the supply of oil is limited, the demand worldwide is increasing dramatically and it is a less reliable form of energy-it's one that we don't control, it's one that we don't have access to, we have to rely on folks who don't like us to give us our energy supply. So I think there are clear differences on this issue, and I think once the election is over there should be an effort to make sure that it is a bipartisan effort. Republicans in the Senate did block the effort this year to do a little bit more on climate change-the Warner-Lieberman bill was proposed and debated but Senate Republicans refused to allow it to be voted on-they filibustered it.

You've said in the past that you support efforts to transition from corn ethanol to more efficient, environmentally friendly cellulosic ethanol. In the mean time do you still support subsidizing corn ethanol?

The current system is built on subsidies that are being provided and people have made investments based on relying on those subsidies, but it is also clear that there simply will not be enough corn even if we continue to increase productivity of the corn crop. . There isn't going to be enough corn to produce the kind of demand that we're going to have for ethanol. So you've got to transition away from corn for cellulosic ethanol, and that's wood chips, that's waste, that's grasses, that's crop residue, it's a series of things that currently have little value but could-if we do it right-have significant value and can help produce a series of jobs, which this economy clearly needs. So as the research gets us to the point where we can produce cellulosic ethanol efficiently and in a cost effective way, what we're going to see is a shifting of those subsidies and that assistance [to cellulosic ethanol]. And then overtime, as that industry matures, there will be a need for ratcheting down the subsidies because the market will take over and there will be an opportunity for additional profits from the market the way it ought to be.


So what do you see as the opponents to corn ethanol subsidies' main points?

Well, there are several. First, it's expensive. Roughly 50, 54 cents a gallon of federal tax credits-there are questions about that. No. 2: Combined with the tariff that we currently assess on sugarcane-produced ethanol in places such as Brazil, it really creates a playing field that, in the eyes of the critics, is not level. No. 3: There are people who contend that supporting corn-based ethanol is creating a situation where food prices in this country and across the globe are increasing. Now, I take issue with that; it may very well be a factor but it is by no means the most important factor, and there are a multitude of other factors that are more significant in terms of rising food costs-No.1: the cost of oil and the cost of energy to put the crop in and to harvest the crop and to fertilize it, all of which is petroleum based. And then finally, there is the issue of whether or not corn-based ethanol is adding to or subtracting from the greenhouse gasses that would otherwise be put into the atmosphere if you continued to use petroleum-based fuel.

There are two main sources of greenhouse gasses from an industrial standpoint: power companies and how they produce the electricity that lights the buildings and our transportation system, and then you have some heavy users of industry that are kind of the third component-commercial and residential not so much. So if you are going to be controlling greenhouse gasses, you have to do something on the transportation side and you have to do something on the power side. Corn-based ethanol is a plus in terms of not being a fossil fuel, of being a renewable fuel and so forth, on the one hand. On the other hand when you use a lot of energy to produce corn-based ethanol, people will come in and say, "You're using a lot of energy to produce a small amount [of energy]."


It has been said that corn-based ethanol is similar to recycling natural gas because 1.3 to 1 is the ratio of energy output to energy input [according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development].

Well, yeah, you have different studies, and there is a lot of research being done now to make the ethanol production process far more efficient both in terms of energy and also in terms of water, which is also a serious concern. So the critics have these arguments, but on the other hand you've got to start this conversation about renewable energy and renewable fuel someplace. In the Midwest in particular, it's a great thing for us to start the conversation because it does add another option for farmers in two ways. One, it provides an additional market for their crops so there's more competition for it, therefore they get a better price for it, which helps stimulate the economies of Minnesota and Iowa and Illinois. Two, farmers are investing and have been investing in their processing facilities, so they benefit and profit not just in production of the crop but also in processing the crop, which allows them maybe the opportunity to save the farm, preserve the farm, keep smaller farms and the value system that we think is really important in small town America. So there are these forces and you kind of have to transition from corn-based ethanol, and at the same time recognize that as you transition, you don't want to harm what's already in place and you want to keep benefitting the people that are sort of the backbone of our agricultural system. And I think that can be done.