Under fire for his position on ethanol, Ted Cruz chose the last Republican debate before the Iowa caucus to throw a Hail Mary, diving deep into the weeds of federal gas policy.
The Texas Senator defended his controversial position opposing federal subsidies for the corn industry, the crop used to make ethanol, and instead doubled down on an obscure Environmental Protection Agency regulation, known as the "blend wall" that caps the amount of ethanol that U.S. refiners can blend into gasoline.
Hot on the heels of frontrunner Donald Trump in the all-important early caucus state, Cruz has been pilloried for his opposition to government subsidies for corn, a stance long considered a third rail for anyone hoping to woo the corn capital of the midwest.
On Thursday night, Cruz defended his position on conservative, anti-big-government grounds, saying he opposes all federal subsidies across the energy sector, period.
"We should be developing oil, and gas, and coal, and nuclear, and wind, and solar, and ethanol, and biofuels," Cruz explained. "But, I don't believe that Washington should be picking winners and losers. And, I think there should be no mandates, and no subsidies whatsoever."
Cruz then launched into an arcane argument designed to appeal to a narrow cadre of conservative, pro-ethanol Iowa voters.
He promised to eliminate the EPA's "blend wall"—a move that would allow refiners to blend more ethanol into the U.S. gasoline supply.
"I will tear down the EPA's blend wall which will enable ethanol to expand its market share by up to 60%, all without mandates," Cruz said.
The oil and gas industry opposes the elimination of the blend wall. The American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil giants like Exxon Mobil and Chevron, has long argued that ethanol-rich gasoline is potentially harmful to engines and catalytic converters.
In November, the EPA allowed refiners to blend 14.5 billion gallons of ethanol into gasoline this year—a record high. The rule marks the first time that refiners were allowed to include more than 10% of ethanol in the U.S. gasoline supply.
But the voters that Cruz was targeting in that brief but wonky detour already knew all that.
It remains to be seen whether the defense will work. Cruz has been doing well in Iowa despite his disdain for ethanol subsidies, but as he takes fire in the remaining days before the Iowa caucuses, it's clear he was hoping to take the issue off the table.