Erosion, pollution: The secret environmental cost of the United States' ethanol policy

By Matt Apuzzo

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 12 2013 3:29 p.m. MST

"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."

Still, corn supplies the overwhelming majority of ethanol in the United States, and the administration is loath to discuss the environmental consequences.

"It just caught us completely off guard," said Doug Davenport, a Department of Agriculture official who encourages southern Iowa farmers to use conservation practices on their land. Despite those efforts, Davenport said he was surprised at how much fragile, erodible land was turned into corn fields.

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 consistent message was laid out by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who spoke to ethanol lobbyists on Capitol Hill recently and said ethanol was good for business.

"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."

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. 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.

The ethanol industry is fighting hard against that effort. Industry spokesman Brooke Coleman dismissed this story as "propaganda on a page." An industry blog in Minnesota said the AP had succumbed "to Big Oil's deep pockets and powerful influence."

To understand how America got to an environmental policy with such harmful environmental consequences, it's helpful to start in a field in Iowa.

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, the major sources of biofuel in the United States.

"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 farmers to stop farming environmentally sensitive land. Grassy fields naturally convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, which helps combat global warming. Plus, their deep root systems prevent topsoil from washing away.

For Perkins and his farmer neighbors in Wayne County, keeping farmland in conservation wasn't just good stewardship. It made financial sense.

A decade ago, Washington paid them about $70 an acre each year to leave their farmland idle. With corn selling for about $2 per bushel (56 pounds) back then, farming the hilly, inferior soil was bad business.

Many opted into the conservation program. Others kept their grasslands for cow pastures.

Lately, though, the math has changed.

"I'm coming to the point where financially, it's not feasible," Perkins said.

The change began in 2007, when Congress passed a law requiring oil companies to blend billions of gallons of ethanol into gasoline.

Oil prices were high. Oil imports were rising quickly. The legislation had the strong backing of the presidential candidate who was the junior senator from neighboring Illinois, the nation's second-largest corn producer.

"If we're going to get serious about investing in our energy future, we must give our family farmers and local ethanol producers a fair shot at success," Obama said then.

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