Ethanol Corn Growers Get Earful from AP Exposé; Will Obama Relent on RFS?

Trail Through Corn Field“The ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.”


Those were the strong words of Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press.

Cappiello and Apuzzo took a long, hard look at the ethanol industry under the Obama administration and found that farmers, in a rush to plant corn for fuel, “wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat, and polluted water supplies.” That 5 million acres, as Cappiello and Apuzzo reported, were more than the Yellowstone, Everglades, and Yosemite parks combined.

Their investigation found that the federal government’s biofuel mandate, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), “has raised corn prices and incentivized farmers to grow corn on environmentally fragile land once set aside for conservation.”

Not that President Barack Obama is completely to blame, as ethanol has been championed by presidential administrations in the past. As the AP authors wrote, in 2007, “President George W. Bush signed a law that year requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline each year,” predicting that the move would make the country “stronger, cleaner and more secure.”

Of course, when the government requires a lot of something, it’s a guarantee that you’ll sell what you can produce of it. The more corn that’s grown, the more corn that’s sold, and the more money in the pockets of growers. Environmental concerns be damned.

And of course Iowa, as all political observers know, is a key election state; carrying Iowa, traditionally one of the earliest national primaries, is a great way to boost a presidential campaign. Iowa grows a lot of corn. Boosting ethanol mandates, which means guaranteeing the sale of a lot of corn is, therefore, a way to get a lot of Iowans to vote for you, and cutting down on ethanol requirements is a great way to lose Iowans’ votes. Hence the nation gets a lot of laws and regulations requiring ethanol.

Political watchdog site Daily Caller covered the AP’s investigation, which found that under the Obama administration, more amounts of nitrogen fertilizer have seeped into water supplies. The level of environmental damage is usually reserved for the oil and gas industry’s activities.

Incidentally, the Daily Caller article noted, “The Environmental Protection Agency has failed on three separate occasions to link fracking to drinking water contamination, and an Energy Department study said fracking is safe when done within regulatory constraints.”

In addition to the five million acres of conservation land has been put into corn service since Obama took office, Apuzzo and Capiello reported that more than 1.2 million acres of valuable “virgin land” in Nebraska and the Dakotas have been plowed into corn and soybean fields since 2006 — the year after the RFS was first signed into law.

The reporters used the Agriculture Department’s own figures of more than 5 million acres of conservation land that were switched under the Obama administration, “from grass field back into farmland,” as covered by 13ABC, an ABC News outlet in Toledo, Ohio. The AP investigation looked at U.S. government crop data collected by satellite, identifying tracts of land that were cornfields in 2012 but grassland in 2006. The AP then excluded land lost from the Conservation Reserve Program to prevent double-counting. The AP vetted this methodology with an independent scientist at South Dakota State University, who has published peer-reviewed research on land conversion using the same satellite data.

The AP authors wrote, “The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration has stood by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact.”

Again, what’s the harm here, exactly? The problem is not the corn, it’s the fertilizer.

“More corn means more nitrogen fertilizer,” Daily Caller explained in its commentary on the AP investigation, adding that “this type of fertilizer is toxic when it seeps into drinking water and has been known to cause ‘blue baby’ syndrome in children.”

Given that the use of nitrogen fertilizer increased by 1 billion pounds between 2005 and 2010, and “the AP estimates that another billion pounds of fertilizer have been used for corn production since then,” Daily Caller wrote, well, you don’t have to be the Sierra Club to have alarm bells raised.

And the effects are not just felt in the corn-growing heartland. “Nitrates travel down rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico, where they boost algae growth, which consume huge amounts of oxygen when they die, making the sea zone unlivable for other creatures,” Daily Caller reported.

Cappiello and Apuzzo further detailed the horror: “Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil. Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers, and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.”

All of this was the result of a huge ethanol mandate.

Of course, the ethanol industry is denying the harmful effects, even going as far as to accuse AP of being backed by Big Oil. “”We find it to be just flabbergasting. There is probably more truth in this week’s National Enquirer than AP’s story,” Geoff Cooper, vice president of research and analysis for the Renewable Fuels Association, said around the time of the release of the AP investigation.

The Associated Press is standing by the story. “The AP’s reporting on this important topic is a result of months of work and review of documents, and interviews of experts and people on all sides of the public policy debate about this energy resource,” said Mike Oreskes, AP’s vice president and senior managing editor in a prepared statement cited by various news outlets. “We stand behind our reporting and welcome further insights and discussion.”

It’s having an effect in Washington. Although not publicly repudiating the policy, the Obama administration is easing away from its full commitment to ethanol. The Toledo ABC News outlet reported that the administration “is soon expected to slightly ease the law’s requirements. Overnight, such changes would eliminate a huge source of the demand for ethanol, reduce profits for farmers and ethanol producers, and likely lower the price of corn.”

So the requirements for ethanol would go down if this were to happen. At least until the next election cycle, when the candidates need Iowans’ votes again.

 

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