President Trump and Joe Biden are both tripping over themselves to appeal to Iowa farmers in the final stretch of the 2020 race by promising steadfast support for corn-based fuel.  

But Bidens play to siphon off voters from Trumps rural base puts him at odds with environmentalists who say ethanol is no better than fossil fuels.  

That’s a potentially risky political move at a time when the Democratic nominee is also trying to energize young voters passionate about climate change.  

Many environmentalists blame federal policies aimed at supporting biofuels for a rapid expansion in agriculture over the past decade, a transformation they say destroyed delicate habitats and resulted in more emissions. 

Corn-based ethanol, said Lukas Ross of the Friends of the Earth Action, has been “a monumental failure.”

“The mandated blending of biofuels in our fuel supply has turned out to be a climate flop,” he added.

Yet Biden's Iowa surrogates are actively playing up his commitment to ethanol in campaign events in recent weeks. 

Biden himself made one of his strongest statements in support of biofuels last month, promising his administration would "promote and advance renewable energy, ethanol, and other biofuels to help rural America and our nation’s farmers.” 

And on Tuesday, Biden attacked Trump’s record on ethanol, calling the president's recent moves to support the biofuel industry transparently political in a statement to Reuters. “Lip service 50 days before an election won’t make up for nearly four years of retroactive damage that’s decimated our trade economy and forced ethanol plants to shutter,” he said. 

Trump announced this week that he is siding with the ethanol industry in a dispute with oil companies over the volume of biofuels in gasoline, a move probably aimed at shoring up his rural base. 

Biden has to strike a delicate balance: He’s moved to the left on environmental issues since his nomination, but at the same time has tried to avoid alienating core industries in key swing states. He has promised not to ban fracking in Pennsylvania, for instance. Now he’s playing up his support for ethanol in states such as Iowa, which went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 but looks much closer in 2020, and Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016.  

The debate over biofuels is evolving.

The biofuels industry claims that a 2005 law, which allows the Environmental Protection Agency to set targets for the volume of biofuels that oil refineries mix into their gasoline, has supported farmers and helped the country become more energy independent. 

Yet many environmental groups say that the law spurred farmers to unnecessarily plow over millions of acres of grassland. As they envision a future with roads filled with electric vehicles, other environmentalists find a debate about the proper proportions of liquid fuel to be backward-looking.  

Scott Faber, the senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said that, while some biofuels made from agricultural waste or algae are more energy-efficient than traditional ethanol, the biofuel industry “lost their chance to be a low-carbon alternative” by lobbying against stronger emissions standards. 

“‘Second generation’ fuels could still reach commercial scale and provide some benefits in the short run,” he added, “but liquid fuels should be increasingly seen as a dead end in light of the rapid adoption of electric vehicles.” 

Not every environmental group is so quick to write off ethanol.

“Does ethanol have a place? Absolutely,” said Jeremy Martin, the director of fuels policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Ethanol is a big part of our transportation fuel mix today and it’s a big part of our agriculture system.”  

Martin argued that ethanol has gotten cleaner over time and can make further progress with reductions in emissions on the agricultural side and at the refinery level. Even if the economy eventually moves to electric vehicles, he said, biofuels could still be important in aviation. 

Biden has faced more backlash for his refusal to support a fracking ban than his position on biofuels.

This could be because environmentalists want the government to encourage drivers to adopt electric vehicles and leave gasoline and biofuels behind. Plus, just about every other Democratic candidate for president shared Biden’s pro-ethanol position.

Biden’s opening for a rural pitch could narrow if Trump shores up his base.

Biden’s renewed appeal on the biofuels issue came as many farmers were frustrated with the Trump administration over everything from trade-war policies to biofuels, potentially giving the Democratic nominee an opening to play for rural voters. 

Under the Trump administration, the number of waivers given out to oil refiners — giving them a pass on the biofuel requirements — has quadrupled, even as the EPA has delayed a decision over where to set mandated biofuel volumes for the coming year until after the election.

Earlier this week, Trump instructed the EPA to deny dozens of requests from oil refiners for waivers from the biofuel standard. 

It’s a move that farmers and the biofuels industry have been pushing for, and it’s one that could not only bolster Trump, but also help Republicans in a heated Senate race. 

First-term Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) is in the middle of what is shaping up to be one of the closest 2020 Senate races as she faces off against challenger Theresa Greenfield, who has attacked her opponent for voting to nominate EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, perceived by many in the state as favoring oil interests over biofuel. 

Ernst made repeated appeals for the president to intervene on behalf of the ethanol industry. Ernst triumphantly tweeted this week that the administration “heeded my calls.” 

Thermometer

Smoke from West Coast wildfires has reached the District. 

A milky-orange haze has settled into the skies of Washington, the result of smoke from the wildfires that has traveled thousands of miles from the West Coast. The smoke is too high up to have much of an effect on air quality on the ground, our colleague Ian Livingston reports.

“The same cannot be said for the Pacific Northwest and West Coast, where air quality has been among the worst anywhere in the world for several days,” Livingston writes.

As of Monday, wildfires in California had burned 3.2 million acres, an area equivalent to the size of Connecticut, and sent smoke plumes from the Pacific Ocean as far as the Canadian Maritimes, Livingston reports.

Hurricane Sally makes landfall near Gulf Shores, Ala.

The Category 2 hurricane arrives on the Gulf Coast with sustained winds over 105 mph, according to the New York Times. And it's expected to bring “catastrophic” flooding, our colleagues Jason Samenow and Andrew Freedman report.

“Hurricane Sally is slogging toward the northern Gulf Coast, where it threatens to unleash ‘historic’ amounts of rain that could trigger ‘extreme life-threatening flash flooding’ through at least Wednesday, according to the National Hurricane Center,” they write.

It’s likely that meteorologists will run out of names for all the storms in 2020 — and that could be a problem.

“Twenty tropical storms and hurricanes have already been named in the Atlantic in 2020, with months left to go before the oceans finally settle,” our colleague Matthew Cappucci writes. “It’s highly likely meteorologists will have to dip into the Greek alphabet for additional storm names.”

The Greek alphabet was only used once before, in 2005, the most active Atlantic Hurricane season in recorded history.

The problem with the Greek alphabet, according to some meteorologists, is that the World Meteorological Organization retires the names of particularly deadly or costly storms. Using these names, according to the National Hurricane Center, “would be inappropriate for obvious reasons of sensitivity.”

But there’s no easy replacement if a letter from the Greek alphabet is retired.

“I mean you could skip [a Greek letter], but that’s sort of weird,” said James Franklin, former chief of the hurricane specialist unit at the National Hurricane Center.

Oil check

BP aims to reinvent itself for a clean-energy future.

“Led by a new chief executive, BP is trying to reinvent itself as an energy company in the age of climate change,” our colleague Steven Mufson writes. “The company is shrinking its oil and gas business, revving up offshore wind power and developing solar and battery storage. It is even considering installing electric car charging kiosks at its gas stations, part of a drive to eliminate or offset its carbon emissions to a net zero level by 2050.”

It’s a sign the company thinks the energy of the future will be low carbon.

The oil giant said it would spend $1.1 billion for a half ownership in wind projects off the coast of Massachusetts and New York. Chief executive Bernard Looney said last month that it would increase spending on low-carbon projects from $500 million to $5 billion a year by 2030. The company has also said it plans to stop looking for oil and gas reserves in new places.

“The new strategy might be good for the world, but tough on the company in the short run,” Mufson writes. 

The company expects that investments on renewables will fall somewhat short of the traditional returns it has gotten on oil, but the alternative, according to Dev Sanyal, chief executive of BP’s alternative energy business, was seeing stockholders divest under pressure from climate activists or seeing their core business regulated out of existence.

BP also faces challenges reinventing itself in sectors where there is already steep competition and where solar and wind companies already have experience. Experts expect that the energy giant may gravitate toward complex, international projects where its ability to leverage large capital offers a competitive advantage.

Power plays

Scientific America backs Biden in the magazine’s first presidential endorsement.

“Scientific American has never endorsed a presidential candidate in its 175-year history. This year we are compelled to do so. We do not do this lightly,” the endorsement reads. “The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people — because he rejects evidence and science.”

The endorsement goes on to accuse Trump of an inept response to the coronavirus pandemic and of attacks on environmental protections and the integrity of scientific institutions.

The House is teeing up a climate vote next week.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the chamber would vote a more than 900-page energy bill that "would funnel money toward research and development of a number of types of energy while promoting energy efficiency for homes, schools and other buildings," The Hill reports.

The move came after senators resolved a disagreement this month over how to phase out a potent set of greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons. 

EPA cancels speaker series on racism and environmental justice following a White House order.

“EPA this week postponed an internal speaker series on environmental problems faced by racial minorities and low-income communities after the White House issued a government-wide order for agencies to stop certain ‘un-American’ race-related training,” Politico reports.

The move comes after the Office of Budget and Management sent a memo Sept. 4 that claimed that the executive branch had spent tax dollars on “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” The memo, which cited a directive from Trump, orders agencies and departments to halt any training related to “critical race theory” or “white privilege.”

The canceled summit comes as many environmental leaders have sought to draw attention to the disproportionate impact of pollution and other environmental threats on racial minorities and low-income communities. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler promised in a speech commemorating the agency’s 50th anniversary earlier this month that the Trump administration would focus more attention on the impact of environmental threats on vulnerable communities. Trump administration budgets, however, have routinely called for cutting the EPA’s environmental justice spending.

Facebook launched a new information hub to disseminate accurate information about climate change. 

The company said the page would show up when users search for or encounter certain material pertaining to climate change. The move comes amid broader efforts by Facebook and other social media companies to address the spread of false and misleading information on their platforms in the face of public pressure, CNBC reports.

The company has faced criticism for false claims about climate change and wildfires spreading rapidly on its platform. The Guardian found that one article blaming wildfires in California on antifa arsonists had been shared 63,000 times.

Facebook has created similar information hubs to combat misinformation over the coronavirus and voting. Facebook labels false information on its news feed, but the company did not say whether it would remove these posts or if it would label or remove misinformation about climate change posted within private Facebook groups, CNBC writes.

Conservative media figures align with Trump in dismissing climate change.

Two of the nation’s most prominent right-wing commentators rejected any connection between climate change and the wildfires in the Western United States, prefiguring comments made by Trump this week, the New York Times reports.

“Man-made global warming is not a scientific certainty; it cannot be proven, nor has it ever been,” Rush Limbaugh said on his Friday radio show. “Environmentalist wackos want man to be responsible for it because they want to control your behavior.”

“In the hands of Democratic politicians, climate change is like systemic racism in the sky,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson told viewers later that night. “You can’t see it, but rest assured, it’s everywhere, and it’s deadly. And like systemic racism, it is your fault.”

Scientists have said climate change is a key culprit in the fires.

On Monday, however, the president played down the role of climate change. “It’ll start getting cooler, you’ll see,” Trump told California officials.

Extinction events

A United Nations report finds that the world has failed to address a catastrophic decline in biodiversity.

The report, released on Tuesday, provides updates on countries’ commitments to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty that entered into force in 1993. 

“In 2010, after painstaking scientific work and arduous negotiation, almost every country in the world signed on to 20 goals under the convention to staunch the biodiversity hemorrhage,” the New York Times reports.

A decade later, the world has fallen far short on these goals. Of the 20 goals, only six were partially achieved at the global level. None was fully achieved.

“The destruction of habitats such as forests, mangroves and grasslands was not cut in half. Overfishing did not decrease. Governments did not stop subsidizing fossil fuels, fertilizers and pesticides that are contributing to the biodiversity crisis,” according to the NYT.