IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Regent Bruce Rastetter intervened on behalf of ethanol industry leaders who were upset with a prominent University of Iowa researcher for warning that water-intensive ethanol production was threatening Iowa's water supply, records show.
Critics called the intervention of Rastetter, an ethanol executive and top donor to Gov. Terry Branstad, another example of his meddling in university affairs in ways that affect his personal interests and threaten academic freedom.
"Sally, the industry would appreciate being able to provide factual information so this professor isn't uninformed," Rastetter wrote to University President Sally Mason Jan. 30, asking whether "there is a way to accomplish that."
Rastetter said he was trying to foster dialogue between industry officials and engineering professor Jerald Schnoor, director of the university's Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.
Schnoor delivered a Jan. 24 lecture in which he warned the growing use of corn for ethanol production was consuming large amounts of water and "unsustainably pumping down" aquifers in Iowa and elsewhere. The talk, which drew on Schnoor's research, was part of a biofuels symposium in Washington hosted by the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We would never want to expand conventional biofuels due to their negative environmental consequences," said Schnoor, who chaired former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver's 2007 task force on climate change.
Schnoor's speech, which was covered by a trade publication, drew scorn from Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group. Shaw forwarded the article to aides to Branstad and Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, claiming Schnoor was advocating an "end to ethanol production in Iowa."
"This guy is an embarrassment to the regent university," Shaw wrote. "If either of your bosses need some actual facts regarding this issue, please let me know."
Rastetter received Shaw's email and forwarded it to Mason with the request to allow the industry "to provide factual information" to Schnoor. Rastetter downplayed the email, which was released in an open records request.
"I'm just trying to put people together so they can have an opportunity to communicate and inform each other of numbers and facts and figures," he said.
The email comes as lawmakers consider a Democratic-sponsored bill that supporters say would rein in Rastetter's influence on the state's universities, which he helps govern as the Board of Regents' president pro tem. Some liberal critics say Rastetter and President Craig Lang, the former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, have wielded too much influence.
"This email exchange is more evidence that Rastetter is willfully using his position to direct or to stifle academic research at the regents' universities," said Adam Mason of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a group that is often critical of Rastetter.
Rastetter founded Hawkeye Energy Holdings, which was once one of the nation's largest ethanol producers. Its plants were sold in 2010, but Rastetter remains close to the industry as CEO of Summit Farms and Summit Group, which are involved in agribusiness. Rastetter is vice chair of Advanced BioEnergy, which owns ethanol plants, and on the board of Growth Energy, which represents 78 ethanol plants.
Mason's chief of staff, Mark Braun, said he asked Schnoor to "have a conversation" with Shaw in response to Rastetter's email. Shaw said the two have exchanged phone messages, but he looked forward to telling Schnoor that ethanol plants were reducing their water use and that other forms of gasoline were more water-intensive.
Shaw said he forwarded the email to Rastetter in hopes of facilitating a conversation with Schnoor. In hindsight, Shaw said he would have contacted Schnoor directly and kept Rastetter out of it.
"I've caused him a headache, unnecessarily, and I feel bad about it," he said. "But here's what I think is shocking: that anyone thinks that the ethanol industry shouldn't talk to a professor who is going around the country talking about us in a way that we think is completely without connection to reality."
Schnoor stood by his research Tuesday but said he'd be happy to meet with industry officials to discuss it. He said he didn't see Rastetter's intervention as improper.
"I think it's the regents' prerogative to ask questions," he said.
The bill to make changes to the Board of Regents, which a legislative subcommittee will consider Wednesday, comes in response to controversies involving Lang and Rastetter. The bill would give faculty of the state's three public universities the power to select one regent; prohibit regents from engaging in certain "political activities" and bar them from having business relationships with university employees; and require more public hearings of plans affecting academic programs.
Supporters of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin have accused Lang and Rastetter of seeking to stifle research at the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University. Rastetter denied that Tuesday, saying he wasn't involved in a university policy — later withdrawn — that banned agricultural research there. Harkin withdrew plans to donate papers from his 40-year career to ISU earlier this month after the controversy.
Rastetter was accused of having a conflict in an investment group he's leading, Agrisol Energy, that planned a large-scale agricultural development in Tanzania with the help of Iowa State professors. The university withdrew last year after negative publicity. Rastetter acknowledged he had made public relations mistakes, but denied wrongdoing. A state board dismissed an ethics complaint.
In November, Iowa State announced it had hired Joe Murphy — then a spokesman for Rastetter's business — as its lobbyist, without publicly advertising the $110,000 per-year job.