America's Strange Love for Corn Ethanol [Updated: New AP article with must-see video]

(New link: Prairies vanish in the US push for green energy)

In 2007, before our domestic shale boom put a big dent in America’s reliance on foreign oil, the Bush Administration made a massive commitment to biofuels. The Renewable Fuels Standard mandated an ever-increasing consumption of ethanol as a motor fuel through 2022.


Candidate Obama, then junior senator from the nation’s #2 corn-producing state, wooed Iowa’s Democratic primary voters with promises of his commitment to their state’s #1 crop. His surprising caucus victory helped make him his party’s nominee. Once in office, President Obama has surrounded himself with policy advisers with deep Corn Belt roots. Corn ethanol assumed its role as a centerpiece of their green energy, anti-Global Warming agenda.

A new report from the Associated Press documents the utter failure of corn ethanol.

The secret environmental cost of US ethanol policy


[Oops! Looks like somebody cleaned up the headline without scrubbing the URL. – Ed.]

The government’s predictions of the benefits [of 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.

“This is an ecological disaster,” said Craig Cox with the Environmental Working Group, a natural ally of the president that, like others, now finds itself at odds with the White House.


The Environmental Working Group? That ain’t exactly the American Petroleum Institute. But on the issue of corn ethanol, the EWG and the API find themselves on the same side of the table — the anti- side.

What are mainstream environmentalists doing opposing ethanol, supposedly the greenest biofuel? As it turns out, corn ethanol isn’t all that green.

    • Corn ethanol is at best a marginal gain in energy over the energy required to produce it.
    • Corn ethanol has less than a 20% greenhouse gas advantage over conventional hydrocarbon fuels. (As the article documents, the EPA had to cook the books with unreasonably high crop yield estimates and unreasonably low corn prices to make the greenhouse numbers work.)
    • Nitrogen fertilizer runoff pollutes drinking water supplies to potentially hazardous levels in cities like Des Moines, IA.
    • Fertilizer runoff causes an annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to oxygen-depleting algae blooms; this year’s dead zone covered 6,500 square miles, an area the size of Connecticut.
    • High corn prices and ethanol demand have driven the cultivation of marginal crop land — land which is not well-suited to corn production — which means low crop yields and high levels of erosion.

It is perhaps this last bullet which troubles the EWG most. Cultivation of once-fallow land has an impact on carbon dioxide that takes generations to offset. Federal Ag policies once encouraged “set-asides” or conservation of marginal cropland. The new message for the corn or bean farmer: “Drill, Baby, Drill!“. The high market price of corn drives farmers to till soil that would otherwise lie fallow.

“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.

According to the article, the Department of Agriculture has gone out of its way to obfuscate the degree to which marginal cropland has been pressed into cultivation. (The AP determined that some 1.2 million acres have been converted since 2006, just in Nebraska and the Dakotas — but you’d never conclude that from USDA’s figures.) And the EPA claims it hasn’t the manpower or the resources to conduct a lookback study to see if ethanol’s touted economic and environmental benefits actually panned out.


In the end, former Iowa governor and Obama’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has this to say:

“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.”

In other words, we can drop the pretense that corn ethanol has anything to do with the environment. It’s about those good old-fashioned American values: money, votes, and power.

Further reading:

  1. Ethanol, the Fuel Only a Politician Could Love
  2. Great Achievements in Central Planning: The Renewable Fuel Standard
  3. Corn ethanol, fertilizer runoff & the Gulf Dead Zone




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