Push for Ethanol Production Carries Costs to Land

- by Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo, November 12, 2013, Source: AP

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"152","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"361","style":"width: 304px; height: 361px; margin-left: 7px; margin-right: 7px; float: left;","width":"304"}}]]The hills of southern Iowa bear the scars of America’s push for green energy: The brown gashes where rain has washed away the soil. The polluted streams that dump fertilizer into the water supply.

Even the cemetery that disappeared like an apparition into a cornfield.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite national parks combined — have vanished on President Barack Obama’s watch.

The ethanol industry has disputed many parts of this story, noting that the decrease in Conservation Reserve Program acreage came in part because of the 2008 farm bill. In addition, farmers increased corn acreage in 2012 and 2013 in response to drought-ravaged corn supplies, not because of ethanol, the industry said.

The corn boom resulted in sprayers pumping 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.

Environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its economic benefits to the farming industry.

Farmers planted 15 million more acres of corn last year than before the ethanol boom, and the effects are visible in places like south-central Iowa.

The hilly, once-grassy landscape is made up of fragile soil that, unlike the earth in the rest of the state, is poorly suited for corn. Nevertheless, it has yielded to America’s demand.

“They’re raping the land,” said Bill Alley, a member of the Board of Supervisors in Wayne County, which now bears little resemblance to the rolling cow pastures shown in postcards sold at a Corydon pharmacy.

All energy comes at a cost. The global warming consequences of drilling for oil and natural gas are well documented and severe.

The government’s hopeful predictions for ethanol, however, have proven so inaccurate that scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases.

The administration accepts the cost because it believes supporting corn ethanol will encourage development of cleaner, greener biofuels.

“That is what you give up if you don’t recognize that renewable fuels have some place here,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a recent interview with AP. “All renewable fuels are not corn ethanol.”

Doug Davenport, a Department of Agriculture official who encourages southern Iowa farmers to use conservation practices, said he was surprised at how much fragile land was turned into cornfields. “It just caught us completely off guard,” he said.

Shortly after Davenport spoke to the Associated Press, he got an email ordering him to stop talking.

“We just want to have a consistent message on the topic,” an Agriculture Department spokesman in Iowa said.

That message was laid out by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: “We are committed to this industry because we understand its benefits,” he said. “We understand it’s about farm income. It’s about stabilizing and maintaining farm income, which is at record levels.”

But the numbers behind the policy 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. Meanwhile, an unusual coalition of big oil companies, environmental groups and food companies is pushing the government to go even further and reconsider the entire ethanol program.

Farmer making choice: Keep grass or plant corn

Leroy Perkins, a white-haired, 66-year-old farmer in denim overalls, stands surrounded by waist-high grass and clover. He owns 91 acres like this, all hilly and erodible, that he set aside for conservation years ago.

Soon, he will have a decision to make: keep the land as it is or, like many of his neighbors, plow it down and plant corn or soybeans.

“I’d like to keep it in,” he said. “This is what southern Iowa’s for: raising grass.”

For decades, the government’s Conservation Reserve Program has paid people to stop farming environmentally sensitive land. Grassy fields convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and that combats global warming. Plus, the deep root systems prevent topsoil from washing away.

A decade ago, Washington paid farmers in Wayne County about $70 an acre to leave their land idle. With corn selling for about $2 per bushel (56 pounds), farming the hilly, inferior soil was bad business.

Lately, the math has changed. “I’m coming to the point where financially, it’s not feasible,” Perkins said.

In Wayne County, a gravel road once cut through a grassy field leading to a hilltop cemetery. But about two years ago, the landowners plowed over the road.

Now, visiting grave sites means walking a path through the corn.

“This is what the price of corn does,” said Bill Alley from the board of supervisors. “This is what happens, right here.”

Agriculture officials acknowledge that conservation land has been lost, but they say the trend is reversing. When the 2013 data come out, they say the figures will show that as corn prices stabilized, farmers once again began setting aside land for conservation.

More nitrogen flows into water

In a recent speech to ethanol lobbyists, Vilsack was unequivocal about ethanol’s benefits: “There is no question air quality, water quality is benefiting from this industry,” he said.

But the administration never actually conducted air and water studies to determine whether that’s true, even though those studies were required by law.

Between 2005 and 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than 1 billion pounds. More recent data aren’t available from the Agriculture Department, but even conservative projections suggest another billion-pound increase since then.

Nitrogen fertilizer, when it seeps into the water, is toxic. Children are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, which causes “blue baby” syndrome and can be deadly.

Department of Agriculture officials note that the amount of fertilizer used for all crops has remained steady for a decade, suggesting the ethanol mandate hasn’t caused a fertilizer boom nationally.

But in the Midwest, officials say the increase in fertilizer use — driven by the increase in corn planting — is having an effect.

Des Moines Water Works, for instance, has faced high nitrate levels for many years in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, which supply drinking water to 500,000 people. Typically, when pollution is too high in one river, workers draw from the other.

“This year, unfortunately the nitrate levels in both rivers were so high that it created an impossibility for us,” said Bill Stowe, the water service’s general manager.

Vilsack: 'It's an opportunity argument'

Independent scientists say it’s hard to make an argument for ethanol as a global warming policy.

“I don’t know whether I can make the environmental argument, or the economic argument,” Vilsack said in an interview with the AP. “To me, it’s an opportunity argument.”

Going to Congress and rewriting the law would mean picking a fight with agricultural lobbyists, a fight that would put the administration on the side of big oil companies, which despise the ethanol requirement. So ethanol policy cruises on autopilot.

Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, said there’s no reason to change the standards. Ethanol still looks good compared to the oil industry, which increasingly relies on environmentally risky tactics like hydraulic fracturing or pulls from carbon-heavy tar sands.

Leroy Perkins, the farmer agonizing about what to do with his 91 acres, says he likes ethanol as a product and an industry. But he knows corn prices are transforming his county.

“If they do change the fuel standard, you’ll see the price of corn come down overnight,” he said. “I like to see a good price for corn. But when it’s too high, it hurts everybody.”