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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

Obama administration officials know the ethanol mandate hasn't lived up to its billing.

The next-generation biofuels that were supposed to wean the country off corn haven't yet materialized. Every year, the EPA predicts millions of gallons of clean fuel will be made from agricultural waste. Every year, the government is wrong.

Every day without those cleaner-burning fuels, the ethanol industry stays reliant on corn and the environmental effects mount.

The EPA could revisit its model and see whether ethanol is actually as good for the environment as officials predicted. But the agency says it doesn't have the money or the manpower.

Even under the government's optimistic projections, the ethanol mandate wasn't going to reduce greenhouse gas right away. And with the model so far off from reality, independent scientists say it's hard to make an argument for ethanol as a global warming policy.

"I'd have to think really hard to come up with a scenario where it's a net positive," said Silvia Secchi, a Southern Illinois University agriculture economist.

She paused a few moments, then added, "I'm stumped."

In June, when Obama gave a major policy speech on reducing greenhouse gas, he didn't mention ethanol. Biofuels in general received a brief, passing reference.

What was once billed as an environmental boon has morphed into a government program to help rural America survive.

"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."

Congress and the administration could change the ethanol mandate, tweak its goals or demand more safeguards. 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 the ethanol policy cruises on autopilot.

Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol lobbying group, 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 it fuels the corn prices that 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."

Investors from as far away as Maryland and Pennsylvania have bought thousands of acres in Wayne County, sending prices skyrocketing from $350 per acre a decade ago to $5,000 today.

One in every four acres of in the county is now owned by an out-of-towner.

Those who still own land often rent it to farming companies offering $300 or more per acre. Perkins could make perhaps $27,000 a year if he let somebody plant corn on his land. That's nothing to dismiss in a county where typical household income is $36,000.

But he knows what that means. He sees the black streaks in his neighbor's cornfields, knowing the topsoil washes away with every rain. He doesn't want that for his family's land.

"You have to decide, do you want to be the one to..."

He doesn't finish his sentence.

"We all have to look at our pocketbooks."

Associated Press writers Jack Gillum in Washington and Chet Brokaw in Roscoe, S.D., contributed to this report.

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