Secret cost of Obama’s green power push to ethanol
November 13, 2013
August 2005 — President George W. Bush signs the Energy Policy Act of 2005, requiring oil companies to add ethanol to their gasoline. Called the Renewable Fuels Standard, this mandate begins with a 4-billion-gallon requirement in 2006 and doubles by 2012. Corn is selling for $1.95 a bushel.
January 2007 — In his State of the Union speech, President Bush calls on Congress to require production of 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017. It would effectively be a huge increase in the ethanol mandate. Corn is selling for $3.05 a bushel.
February 2007 — Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, the nation’s No. 2 corn-producing state, declares his candidacy for president. In his speech he hails “homegrown, alternative fuels like ethanol.” Obama is a strong supporter of passing a new, higher Renewable Fuels Standard.
December 2007 — Congress passes the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Bush signs it into law. It expands the renewable fuels standard to require 36 billion gallons of ethanol and other fuels to be blended into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel by 2022. Corn ethanol production would max out at 15 billion gallons in 2015. Corn is selling for $3.77.
January 2008 — A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicts that the ethanol mandate will increase nitrogen pollution in rivers, worsening the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, which cannot support sea life.
February 2008 — A study in the journal Science warns that if U.S. biofuel policy encourages farmers to plow into untouched grassland or farmland that has been set aside for conservation, it will undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. That’s because plowing into grassland releases carbon dioxide. The Department of Energy responds that the new fuel standard can be met without plowing into any conservation land.
2008 — The amount of farmland set aside for conservation suddenly decreases. About 34 million acres are enrolled in the government’s voluntary Conservation Reserve Program, a drop of about 2 million from 2007.
May 2009 — President Obama’s EPA takes the first steps toward implementing the new ethanol mandate. Government experts conclude that corn ethanol is, on average, 16 percent better than gasoline when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. The law requires that new ethanol plants be 20 percent better.
2009 — Enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program falls again, this time by nearly 1 million acres.
March 2010 — After lobbying from the agriculture industry, EPA publishes its final rule on the new ethanol mandate. The new analysis shows ethanol is 21 percent better than gasoline, slightly better than required by law. As part of the analysis, the government assumes corn prices will rise only slightly, to $3.59 a bushel, by 2022.
August 2010 — Corn sells for $3.65, already eclipsing the government’s long-term price estimate.
2010 — For the first time on record, ethanol is the No. 1 use for American corn, eclipsing livestock feed. Some 2.4 million more acres disappear from the Conservation Reserve Program.
February 2011 — Corn sells for $5.65a bushel.
2011 — Farmland acreage set aside for conservation continues to fall, this time by 173,000 acres. About 4.8 million acres have been lost since 2006.
January 2012 — A 30-year-old federal subsidy for ethanol expires, along with a tariff on imported ethanol. Ethanol blenders were getting a tax credit of 45 cents per gallon. Corn sells for $6.07.
2012 — Another 1.5 million acres of conservation land disappears, bringing the total to more than 6 million since 2006.
March 2013 — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uses satellite data to show that rising corn prices have encouraged farmers to convert grassland to cropland, which releases carbon dioxide into the air. The Renewable Fuel Association responds that “the extremely high rate of error associated with the satellite imagery” makes the study’s results “highly questionable and irrelevant to the biofuels policy debate.” Corn sells for $7.13.
May 2013 — Des Moines Water Works in Iowa reports historic levels of nitrates in the drinking-water supply, blames agricultural fertilizer.
July 2013 — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announces the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone has increased. Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, blames ethanol production.
August 2013 — EPA finalizes renewable fuel standard for 2013, requiring 16.55 billion gallons of biofuels, mostly ethanol, to be consumed in U.S. this year. Corn sells for $6.21.
CORYDON, Iowa — 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.
With the Iowa political caucuses on the horizon in 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama made homegrown corn a centerpiece of his plan to slow global warming. When President George W. Bush signed a law that year requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline each year, Bush predicted it would make the country "stronger, cleaner and more secure."
But 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 contaminated 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 been converted on Obama's watch.
Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.
Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, polluted rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can't survive.
The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative consequences.
All energy comes at a cost. The environmental consequences of drilling for oil and natural gas are well documented and severe. But in the president's push to reduce greenhouse gases and curtail global warming, his administration has allowed so-called green energy to do not-so-green things.
In some cases, such as the decision to allow wind farms that sometimes kill eagles, the administration accepts environmental costs because they pale in comparison to the havoc global warming could ultimately cause.
In the case of ethanol, the administration believes it must encourage the development of next-generation biofuels that will someday be cleaner and greener than today's.
"That is what you give up if you don't recognize that renewable fuels have some place here," EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said. "All renewable fuels are not corn ethanol."
But next-generation biofuels haven't been living up to expectations. And the government's predictions on ethanol have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases.
That makes the hidden costs even more significant.
"They're raping the land," said Bill Alley, a Democratic member of the board of supervisors in Wayne County, Iowa, which now bears little resemblance to the rolling cow pastures shown in postcards sold at a Corydon town pharmacy.
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.
But the Obama administration stands by the mandate and rarely acknowledges that green energy requires any trade-offs.
"There is no question air quality, water quality is benefiting from this industry," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told ethanol lobbyists recently.
But the administration has never conducted studies to determine whether that's true.
Fertilizer, for instance, can make drinking water toxic. Children are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, which causes "blue baby" syndrome and can be deadly.
Between 2005 and 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than a billion pounds. More recent data isn't available from the Agriculture Department, but conservative projections suggest another billion-pound increase since then.
In the Midwest, where corn is the dominant crop, some are sounding alarms.
The Des Moines Water Works 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 utility's general manager.
For three months this summer, huge purifiers churned around the clock to meet demand for safe, clean water.
Obama's support for ethanol dates to his time as a senator form 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 in 2007.
From the beginning of his presidential administration, however, Obama's environmental team saw corn ethanol as a dubious policy. 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's the land conversion, the most controversial and difficult-to-predict outcome.
Digging up grassland releases greenhouse gases, so environmentalists are skeptical of anything 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 the Environmental Protection Agency's senior policy counsel. "I don't have a lot of personal enthusiasm for the program."
There was plenty enthusiasm at the White House and at the Department of Agriculture, where officials argued to the EPA that ethanol was cleaner than it thought. The EPA ultimately agreed.
The policy hinged on assumptions that corn prices would not go too high and farms would get more efficient. That way, there wouldn't be much incentive to plow untouched areas and destroy conservation land.
But corn prices climbed to more than $7 a bushel, about twice the administration's long-term prediction. Suddenly, setting aside land for conservation was bad economics for many farmers.
"I'm coming to the point where financially, it's not feasible," said Leroy Perkins, a farmer in Wayne County who set aside 91 acres years ago and let it grow into high grass.
Losing millions of conservation acres was bad. Plowing over untouched prairies was worse.
Using satellite data — the best tool available — The Associated Press identified at least 1.2 million acres of virgin land in Nebraska and the Dakotas that have been converted to corn and soybean fields since 2006.
"The last five years, we've become financially solvent," said Robert Malsam, a farmer in Edmunds County, S.D., who like others in the Dakotas has plowed wild grassland to expand his corn crop.
The government could change the mandate or demand more safeguards. But that would pick a fight with agricultural lobbyists and would put the administration on the side of oil companies, which despise the ethanol requirement.
Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol lobbying group, said there's no reason to change anything. Ethanol is still cleaner than oil, he said.
These days, when administration officials discuss ethanol, they often frame it as an economic program for rural America, not an environmental policy.
When Obama gave a major speech in June on reducing greenhouse gas, biofuels received only a passing reference.
With the government's predictions so far off from reality, scientists say it's hard to argue for ethanol as 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, then added: "I'm stumped."
Associated Press writers Jack Gillum in Washington and Chet Brokaw in Roscoe, S.D., contributed to this report.