By Bradford McKee
What has been sold as a great fix to the nation’s fossil fuel problems is rapidly creating a disaster in the American landscape. Ethanol made from corn is supposed to work all kinds of magic for the United States by making us less reliant on foreign oil and, by supplanting petroleum products, cutting the carbon released into the atmosphere. Support for the ethanol industry is now enmeshed in federal policy. In 2007, Congress and the Bush administration passed a law, the Energy Independence and Security Act, that dramatically steps up the amounts of ethanol and other biofuels required to be added to gasoline each year through 2022. The Obama administration promotes ethanol production as a major part of its green-energy strategy to slow climate change.
Whatever the benefits of the corn rush have been, the costs in land, water, and air have been huge and insidious. A months-long investigation by Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press released in November documents the damage done by the frenzy to embrace ethanol: Since Obama became president, the AP reports, as many as five million acres of conservation land have disappeared under cornfields. Fifteen million more acres of corn are growing today than when ethanol first became such a valuable commodity a decade or so ago. Delicate grasslands not well suited to growing corn are being plowed and planted and fertilized. The plowing alone is to blame for enormous releases of carbon into the atmosphere as well as for the loss of vegetation that would otherwise act as a carbon sink. Soils are washing away, taking chemical fertilizers with them into watersheds, drinking water supplies, and down into the dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico. Craig Cox, the senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., calls it “an ecological disaster.”
Officially, the Obama administration is acting as if there is no problem. It is politically invested in making ethanol sound like a brilliant idea for the environment and for the farm economy. In recent years, you could almost smell the money coming from the nation’s Corn Belt as corn prices tripled to more than $7 a bushel and prices for farmland in many places doubled, so the ethanol industry is vitally interested in keeping its dreams alive. But the administration knows the damage the ethanol craze is causing. A U.S. Department of Agriculture official who works in Iowa on land conservation told the AP of his surprise at the widespread misuse of “fragile, erodible land” for raising corn. Shortly afterward, the official was ordered by the department to keep quiet about it. And though federal law requires that renewable fuels be 20 percent cleaner than gasoline in their carbon dioxide releases, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that by 2022, they will be only 16 percent cleaner when the total carbon footprint of growing corn at realistic yields is factored in. The AP reports that there was pressure from the White House on the EPA to tweak its models with improbable parameters in order to arrive at a more palatable message. The agency was able to push a scenario that made ethanol 21 percent cleaner than gasoline.
The Renewable Fuels Association, as you might imagine, has gone bonkers over the AP report and has done its best to label it as cheap, hyperbolic, and “just plain wrong.” But there is more than enough concern among conservation groups to suggest the problem is as urgent as the AP says it is. A story a week earlier by Amanda Peterka of Greenwire, part of E&E Publishing in Washington, described an effort by Ducks Unlimited, the Climate Trust, the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Terra Global Capital to create a market of carbon offsets to try to make preservation of sensitive grassland habitat as financially attractive as conversion to cornfields. In the northern plains, researchers at South Dakota State University estimated that 1.3 million acres of grassland were turned to cropland between 2006 and 2011. A Ducks Unlimited director, Stephen Adair, told Peterka: “I compare it to the loss of rain forest in Brazil, right here in our backyard.” No fuel comes free of costs, but there is no energy progress without an honest accounting.