Northey Caught Between Oil, Ethanol Interests

It’s not personal, but Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey is in political limbo as a U.S. senator holds up confirmation of his nomination for a federal ag position.

Northey, a Republican in his third term heading the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, was nominated in September by President Donald Trump to be undersecretary for farm production and conservation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although the 57-year-old Spirit Lake farmer sailed through a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, his nomination has run into trouble from Sen. Ted Cruz. R-Texas.

“Presumably, it has nothing to do with Bill Northey himself, his qualifications or what he stands for,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said Wednesday about the confirmation delay.

Instead, the postponement has “everything to do with Chuck Grassley working hard to make sure the (Renewable Fuel Standard) wasn’t destroyed by the (Environmental Protection Agency) director, who was not following the president’s promise that he made to voters of this country that he’s going to support alternative energy, particularly ethanol,” Grassley told reporters.

Cruz’s effort is “misplaced,” added GOP Sen. Joni Ernst on Wednesday. “I have spoken with Sen. Cruz, and made clear that Bill Northey is eminently qualified for this position, and his confirmation has nothing to do with the issue Sen. Cruz is raising.”

Northey remains optimistic that ultimately he will be confirmed. He noted that Greg Ibach, the former Nebraska state ag director who went through the hearing process with him, was sworn in Monday as a USDA undersecretary.

“So it could happen any time and it could be a significant delay,” Northey said Wednesday while traveling in southeast Iowa between visits to farms and ag-related businesses. “I know there are folks having conversations, seeing if they can make something happen. We’ll just wait and see when that vote is, when the hold gets dropped.”

Cruz and senators from states that produce and refine petroleum want to meet with administration officials about the Renewable Fuel Standard — a federal mandate that requires transportation fuel to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuels.

EPA Director Scott Pruitt had announced the likelihood of decreasing the amount of advanced biofuels that would be required. After being pressed by Grassley, Ernst and other senators from corn-growing states who cited Trump’s commitment to corn-based ethanol, Pruitt reversed course.

During the fight for the higher renewable volumes, Ernst temporarily blocked an EPA nominee until the administration supported renewable fuel policies benefiting Midwest farmers and producers.

Now Cruz is using the same tactic by blocking the Northey nomination.

His oil state allies say the price of credits used to show compliance with the rule have been driven up by speculators. That’s increasing costs for refiners, according to Cruz, and risking jobs.

Cruz is using the Northey nomination “as leverage to get what they tried to accomplish in the first place that we stopped,” Grassley said, adding that he doesn’t think Cruz will succeed.

“The president isn’t going to change his views on ethanol because he’s explained them to me three or four times very strongly,” he said.

Ernst echoed that, saying the Iowa Republicans have Pruitt’s commitment “to support the spirit and letter” of the fuel standard.

Ernst said Cruz’s block prevents Northey from being involved in discussion of the farm bill, where his knowledge is “greatly needed.”

The post Northey would fill “is right in the middle of the farm bill, you know, dealing with all of the farm programs, crop insurance and conservation,” Grassley said. The portion of the bill in Northey’s sphere would “take care of the most important things that are related to the family farm.”

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