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

The Democratic primary field was crowded, and if he didn't win the Iowa caucuses the road to the nomination would be difficult. His strong support for ethanol set him apart.

"Any time we could talk about support for ethanol, we did," said Mitch Stewart, the battleground states director for Obama's 2008 campaign. "It's how we would lead a lot of discussions."

President Bush signed the bill that December.

It would fall on the next president to figure out how to make it work.

President Obama's team at the EPA was sour on the ethanol mandate from the start.

As a way to reduce global warming, they knew corn ethanol was a dubious proposition. Corn demands fertilizer, which is made using natural gas. What's worse, ethanol factories typically burn coal or gas, both of which release carbon dioxide.

Then there was the land conversion, the most controversial and difficult-to-predict outcome.

Digging up grassland releases greenhouse gases, so environmentalists are skeptical of any program that encourages planting more corn.

"I don't remember anybody having great passion for this," said Bob Sussman, who served on Obama's transition team and recently retired as EPA's senior policy counsel. "I don't have a lot of personal enthusiasm for the program."

At the White House and the Department of Agriculture, though, there was plenty of enthusiasm.

One of Obama's senior advisers, Pete Rouse, had worked on ethanol issues as chief of staff to Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a major ethanol booster and now chair of the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agriculture Innovation and Productivity.

Another Obama adviser at the time, Heather Zichal, grew up in northeast Iowa — as a child, she was crowned "sweet corn princess" — and was one of the Obama campaign's leading voices on ethanol in her home state.

The administration had no greater corn ethanol advocate than Vilsack, the former Iowa governor.

"Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home," Obama said in 2008. "That is the kind of leader I want in my Cabinet."

Writing the regulations to implement the ethanol mandate was among the administration's first major environmental undertakings. Industry and environmental groups watched closely.

The EPA's experts determined that the mandate would increase demand for corn and encourage farmers to plow more land. Considering those factors, they said, corn ethanol was only slightly better than gasoline when it came to carbon dioxide emissions.

Sixteen percent better, to be exact. And not in the short term. Only by 2022.

By law, though, biofuels were supposed to be at least 20 percent greener than gasoline.

From a legal standpoint, the results didn't matter. Congress exempted existing coal- and gas-burning ethanol plants from meeting this standard.

But as a policy and public relations issue, it was a real problem. The biofuel-friendly Obama administration was undermining the industry's major selling point: that it was much greener than gasoline.

So the ethanol industry was livid. Lobbyists flooded the EPA with criticism, challenging the government's methods and conclusions.

The EPA's conclusion was based on a model. Plug in some assumed figures — the price of corn, the number of acres planted, how much corn would grow per acre — and the model would spit out a number.

To get past 20 percent, the EPA needed to change its assumptions.

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