This week past week, the Associated Press released a series of articles taking aim at ethanol.
Many in the agriculture and renewable fuels industries were quick to respond.
Among the claims made in the Associated Press stories:
• Ethanol from corn has proven far more damaging to the environment than the government predicted, and cellulosic fuel hasn’t emerged as a replacement.
• An expansion of the Corn Belt has been fueled in part by America’s green energy policy, which requires oil companies to blend billions of gallons of corn ethanol into their gasoline. In 2010, fuel became the No. 1 use for corn in America, a title it held in 2011 and 2012 and narrowly lost this year. That helps keep prices high for farmers.
• Corn prices more than doubled in the years after Congress passed the ethanol mandate in 2007.
• More than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost since the federal government required that gasoline be blended with increasing amounts of ethanol, an analysis of satellite data found. That’s in addition to the 5 million acres of farmland that had been aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — that have vanished since President Barack Obama took office.
• Nebraska has lost at least 830,000 acres of grassland, a total larger than New York City, Los Angeles and Dallas combined.
• Plowing into untouched grassland releases carbon dioxide that has been naturally locked in the soil. It also increases erosion and requires farmers to use fertilizers and other industrial chemicals. In turn, that destroys native plants and wipes out wildlife habitats.
• Increased corn production has increased use of nitrogen fertilizer. Between 2005 and 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than a billion pounds. The Des Moines Water Works, for example, has faced high nitrate levels for many years in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, which supply drinking water to 500,000 people.
• In the case of ethanol, the Obama administration believes it must encourage the development of next-generation biofuels that will someday be cleaner and greener than today’s.
• Next-generation biofuels haven’t been living up to expectations. Cellulosic makers are expected to turn out at most 6 million gallons of fuel this year, the government says. That’s enough fuel to meet U.S. demand for 11 minutes. It’s less than 1 percent of what Congress initially required to be on the market this year. This year will be the fourth in a row the biofuels industry failed by large margins to meet required targets for cellulosic biofuels.
• The numbers behind the ethanol mandate have become so unworkable that, for the first time, the EPA is soon expected to reduce the amount of ethanol required to be added to the gasoline supply.
• The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy.
Below are some of the responses from the agriculture and renewable fuels industries:
National Farmers Union: AP Story One-Sided, Misguided
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson issued the following statement in response to a recent story by the Associated Press that blames biofuels for causing environmental harm:
“The story blames biofuels for the reduced acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). What it neglects to mention is that Congress reduced CRP by roughly seven million acres in the 2008 Farm Bill and is poised to be reduced by seven to eight million acres in the next farm bill.
“In addition, climate change and new seed varieties are mostly responsible for the expansion of corn production, with warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons making it possible to plant corn in places like North Dakota and Canada.
“American-produced biofuels are a clear and environmentally-friendly alternative to oil. Today’s ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30 percent compared to gasoline.
“NFU will continue stand up for the Renewable Fuel Standard that is cleaning up the environment, diversifying fuel sources and supporting rural economies.”
What the story got wrong, according to the Renewable Fuels Association
Claim: Ethanol production has caused 5 million acres of land to be removed from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) since President Obama took office.
Fact: The 2008 Farm Bill removed funding for roughly seven million acres of CRP land (www.ers.usda.gov/media/176099/page9.pdf). Based on this law, the number of enrolled acres has decreased to fit within the programs new, smaller budget. It is legally impossible to get back to pre-2008 levels of CRP enrollment. This has nothing to do with ethanol. Since the cap was lowered, acres have been near (92 percent to 98 percent) the new cap each year.
Acreage enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program hit a record high of 2.65 million acres in 2012. The land that is enrolled in the program stays for aminimum of 30 years (www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/easements/wetlands/), meaning landowners are not allowed to fill in wetlands as they please. USDA predicts that enrollment in this program will continue to rise (www.ers.usda.gov/media/176099/page9.pdf). Moreover, according to EPA’s latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory, no new grassland has been converted to cropland since 2005 and grassland sequestered 14 percent more carbon in 2011 (latest data available) than 1990.
Fact: Corn prices have been below $7 per bushel for most of 2013. The day the AP article was first published, corn futures were trading at the lowest price (www.nasdaq.com/article/grain-futures-mixed-corn-trades-at-3year-low-on-crop-prospects-cm295876) since 2010: $4.26 per bushel.
Fact: Farmers increased corn acreage in 2012 and 2013 in response to drought ravaged corn supplies, not because of ethanol. In fact, less corn (www.usda.gov/oce/commodity/wasde/latest.pdf) was and will be used for ethanol in 2012 and 2013 than in 2011. Moreover, the increase in corn acres has been achieved through crop switching (usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1000), not through the cultivation of new lands, as the story alleges.
Additionally, 90 percent of ethanol plants use natural gas a power source and only 10% use coal.
Fact: Using a starting point of 2007, when the RFS was enacted, nitrogen use fell (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/fertilizer-use-and-price.aspx) by 2010.
Farmer believes his comments were skewed in AP story
An Iowa farmer named Leroy Perkins was quoted extensively in the AP’s story. But in a follow-up interview, Perkins said he believes his views on oil alternatives, land use and the environment were intentionally skewed to tell an inaccurate and one-sided story:
Some direct excerpts:
• “It’s impossible to precisely calculate how much ethanol is responsible for the spike in corn prices and how much those prices led to the land changes in the Midwest.”
• “The environmental consequences of drilling for oil and natural gas are well documented and severe.”
Ethanol productions is proven to be sustainable
I work on behalf of several thousand corn farmers in Colorado — most of them family operated, and most having existed for generations.
They don’t survive the passage of generations without environmental AND financial sustainability. One is just as important as the other.
If farmers don’t protect their land and water resources, they erode their own equity and lose key components necessary to maintain their businesses — and have nothing to offer the next generation.
Corn-based ethanol production has ensured both environmental and financial sustainability for farmers in Colorado.
First, I will address the elephant in the room. Yes, financially, corn-based ethanol has helped corn farmers. But before ethanol, corn was valued around $2 a bushel. At that price, corn production was a slow path to equity depletion without assistance from the government just to stay solvent.
Since the advent of ethanol, the value of corn has increased to a point that makes most government payments to farmers — $12 billion of federal support - virtually a thing of the past. And before you start thinking that the increase in corn prices affects the price you pay at the grocery store, remember that less than a nickel of the American food dollar goes to corn farmers. And since only a tiny portion of corn product is present in only a portion of retail food items, the fraction of cost attributable is nearly undetectable. Fuel prices and retailer profits have a significantly higher impact on food costs than the price of corn.
OK, so that leaves us with the environmental impacts of corn-based ethanol.
Yes, there is less land in the Conservation Reserve Program. But that’s not because of ethanol. It’s due to federal budget constraints and a decrease in the cap of CRP acres down to 32 million in 2010. However, even though acreage cannot go back to its 2007 high due to the cap, acreage in restored wetlands and other high-value practices is likely to increase, not decrease, according to the USDA.
Furthermore, law prohibits the conversion of sensitive ecosystems to cropland, and the law requires that corn and other feedstock used to produce renewable fuels for the sake of the renewable fuel standard may only be sourced from land that was actively engaged in agricultural production in 2007, the year of the bill’s enactment.
The EPA is required to annually evaluate whether the standard is causing U.S. cropland to expand beyond the 2007 level of 402 million acres. Each and every year, not only has the EPA found that cropland has been below the 2007 baseline, but the 2012 cropland total was at its lowest point since the EPA began this annual analysis.
Want an even clearer picture of what ethanol has done for the environment? Just look at Denver. Remember in the 1970s and 1980s when the Mile High City was frequently marred with a thick, ugly, “brown cloud?” Fuel oxygenated with ethanol has been a big part of cleaning Denver’s air.
I hope, like ethanol, I have helped clear the air on some of the misinformation about ethanol. ❖
Mark Sponsler is the executive director of the Colorado Corn Growers Association.