Framing and reframing the environmental risks and economic benefits of ethanol production in Iowa
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Recent research exposing environmental and social externalities of biofuels has undermined the earlier national consensus that they would provide climate mitigation and rural development benefits, but support for ethanol remains strong in Iowa. The objective of this paper is to understand how stakeholder groups in Iowa have framed the benefits and risks associated with ethanol’s impact on the local economy and environment. Our case study draws on in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted with key informants from agricultural organizations, environmental organizations, and government departments in the state. We find that in Iowa, widespread support for ethanol production exists among government, energy, and farm groups, and that they frame ethanol production as economically beneficial to rural communities and agriculture, while minimizing the possibility of associated environmental risks. Although participants from environmental organizations in Iowa express apprehension about the environmental impacts of expanded corn ethanol production, their unease is muted in relation to economic benefits and in relation to other environmental issues, and few have publicly voiced their concerns. To understand these findings, we draw from the environmental sociology literature that examines the role of powerful natural resource interests in framing the importance of resource extraction and commodity production to community identity and economy and in delegitimizing and naturalizing associated environmental issues and problems. We argue that powerful natural resource interests in Iowa both naturalize environmental problems related to ethanol production and engage in diversionary reframing to emphasize the economic benefits while minimizing or rejecting the potential environmental risks.