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Ethanol-impact investigation by AP has strengths, also major weaknesses

It’s hard to see anything here that is specifically about ethanol as opposed to industrial corn production and the workings of world grain markets. 

Was it really a secret, from anyone, that soil erosion, water pollution and other awful consequences attend much industrialized corn farming, whether the harvest is used to make ethanol, livestock feed or Doritos?
Creative Commons/David Morris

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.

Thus begins the Associated Press’s new investigative project on the environmental drawbacks of the U.S. ethanol industry, which  I want to say — first — impressed me with the breadth of its ambition, and its demonstrated command of complex subject matter.

If nothing else, the reporting by Dina Cappiello and colleagues is an impressively detailed picture of the industry’s current state, both in the U.S. and worldwide. It is also a reasonable listing of the manifold issues associated with turning corn into motor fuel, and some of them are new and interesting, at least to me — like losses of apparently virgin grassland to crop cultivation on the Great Plains.

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That said, however, I will confess to some disappointments in an analysis I found deficient in, I guess, perspective.

As one who has been writing about ethanol and other biofuels (with considerable ambivalence) since the 1990s, and who shepherded the Star Tribune’s major investigative projects for many years before that, I am struck by how much of the content is old material given a fresh coat of blame.

There is a ceaseless effort, for example, to hold the Obama administration responsible for the impact of policies — including the national ethanol mandate — that were in place before his presidency.

Language runs to lurid

And so much of the language is just plain lurid, starting with the main headline: “The Secret Environmental Cost of U.S. Ethanol Policy.”

Was it really a secret, from anyone, that soil erosion, water pollution and other awful consequences attend much industrialized corn farming, whether the harvest is used to make ethanol, livestock feed or Doritos?

And is it really such an awful thing that farmers plant corn on all four sides of a country graveyard? Do we really imagine that no such thing could have happened before the ethanol boom?

The AP report makes much of the “Five million acres of land set aside for conservation —more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined —[that] have vanished on Obama’s watch.”

However that figure might strike you, it is perhaps less impressive if you consider that:

  • The vast majority of it was former farmland taken out of production under the Conservation Reserve Program, an initiative that has always been only partly about protecting sensitive land, and partly about boosting farm prices.
  • While higher corn prices have moved farmers to put idled land back into production in the upper Midwest, so have reductions in the CRP program itself. So has drought in the southern U.S. So have shifts in global grain demand.
  • Though ethanol production has played a role — and sometimes a large role — in raising corn prices, it is hardly the only driver in a system of markets and incentives so complex that ag economists are frequently at odds in explaining it.

Losses of virgin land

A more striking statistic developed by the AP concerns conversion of 1.2 million acres of “virgin land” — grasslands across Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota that had never been cultivated  — into cropland since 2006, the year before Congress enacted the national mandate that most gasoline contain some ethanol:

A policy intended to reduce global warming is encouraging a farming practice that actually could worsen it.

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That’s because plowing into untouched grassland releases carbon dioxide that has been naturally locked in the soil. It also increases erosion and requires farmers to use fertilizers and other industrial chemicals. In turn, that destroys native plants and wipes out wildlife habitats.

It appeared so damaging that scientists warned that America’s corn-for-ethanol policy would fail as an anti-global warming strategy if too many farmers plowed over virgin land. The Obama administration argued that would not happen. But the administration didn’t set up a way to monitor whether it actually happened.

It did.

The AP methodology seems sound enough: It used satellite data to identify plots of grassland as they existed in 2006, and as they existed last year. Land that had been converted was then checked against data from the U.S. Geological Survey and Department of Agriculture to identify parcels that had been planted in corn or soybeans.

To qualify its estimate of 1.2 million acres as “conservative,” the AP excluded grassland that had formerly been set aside in the federal CRP program, reasoning that some portion of those former CRP lands had been cultivated previously, then allowed to return to grassland by 2006. And they enlisted the expertise of Chris Wright, a prof at South Dakota State University,  who reviewed the methodology and apparently found it worthy.

A serious problem, maybe someday

But Wright’s comment on the findings struck me as surprisingly mild: “The conversation about land preservation should start now before it becomes a serious problem.”

Meaning, one could assume, that the situation isn’t yet the serious problem portrayed by the AP.

And I couldn’t help but notice that the AP’s count of 1.2 million acres lost includes “plots that were wild grass or pastureland seven years ago [and] are now corn and soybean fields” (emphasis added).  Loss is loss, of course, but it really isn’t fair to treat increased soybean planting as a consequence of ethanol production. (Biodiesel? Maybe.)

There are other interesting findings in the AP report that seem both important and new, at least to me. One concerns possible manipulation of data to be sure that corn ethanol met a policy test of being 20 percent “greener” than gasoline.

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After an initial analysis put the figure at 16 percent, starting in 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed its calculations to raise yield forecasts and lower price predictions, both of which would raise corn ethanol’s benefits relative to its costs. AP says this was done under pressure from industry lobbyists, and with suggestions from the White House budget office. But ethanol plants had been exempted from the calculus anyway, so … so what?

And it was interesting, if not surprising, to learn how high corn prices are driving investors from Maryland and Pennsylvania to buy cropland in Iowa. But is it important?

When I first started writing about ethanol, the question I heard most often from friends and neighbors was whether it didn’t require more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than that gallon delivered when burned in an automobile engine.

The answer, of course, was: It depends. It depends on how efficient the ethanol plant and the engine are. It depends on how far the corn has to be shipped from the fields where it’s harvested, and how far the ethanol has to travel to the filling station where it is dispensed into vehicles.

There is little question that ethanol production has had many negative environmental impacts, including some of high importance in Minnesota — like groundwater withdrawals for crop irrigation and ethanol processing — that the AP project barely mentions.

But it’s hard to see a single problem here that is specifically about ethanol as opposed to industrial corn production and the workings of world grain markets. It’s about our agriculture system as much as ethanol policies.

So if the question before us today is whether ethanol does more harm than good, I guess the answer remains: It depends.