Obama's Corn Ethanol Environmental Disaster

EthanolAndreblais: DreamstimeThe Associated Press is running a terrific and long investigative article, "The Secret, Dirty Cost of Obama's Green Power Push," on the environmental downsides of the ethanol fuel mandate. From the AP...

...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 polluted 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 vanished 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, contaminated 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 impact.

Farmers planted 15 million more acres of corn last year than before the ethanol boom, and the effects are visible in places like south central Iowa.

Besides these negative effects, it is doubtful that producing corn ethanol has much, if any effect, on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are thought to be contributing to man-made global warming. Nevertheless, industry lobbyists fought hard to get the EPA to jigger the numbers so that ethanol would look good in this respect. As the AP explains:

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.

The AP reports that the EPA bowed to lobbyist pressure and changed its assumptions, i.e., boosting its estimates of average yields to 230 bushels per acre and corn prices leveling off at $3.22 per bushel. In the 2013 bumper crop year, the U.S. Department of  Agriculture estimates yields will be just over 160 bushels per acre and corn prices are currently around $4.30 per bushel.

It is worth your while to read the entire depressing article. For more background see my 2010 article about my visit to an ethanol plant in Aberdeen, SD. Also see Reason TV's 2008 video in which I outline the harms of ethanol subsidies below:

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  • albo||

    Screw Iowa and their first presidential political event of the cycle. You hayseeds have too much influence, and we suffer because you get yourself a sweet chunk of the government dole.

  • kinnath||

    Don't forget New Hampshire. They're just as responsible for fucking up the system as Iowa.

  • albo||

    I think New Hampshire and Delaware share the title of "state with the largest concentration of suck in comparison to its size."

  • kinnath||

    Don't forget, Iowa essentially nominated Ron Paul at the state convention.

  • Brett L||

    I hope all those shills of Big Corn read out of the Green movement. Turns out that the Big Oil shills were right. Fucking BP-Shell reality control device.

  • Sevo||

    AP didn't call it the "Bush Plan"! A media outfit actually blaming Obo for what Obo has done?!
    AMAZING!

  • NealAppeal||

    New alt-text - "Enviroporn"

  • Cdr Lytton||

    For decades, the government's Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers to stop farming environmentally sensitive land.
    ...
    A decade ago, Washington paid them about $70 an acre each year to leave their farmland idle.
    ...
    Before the government ethanol mandate, the Conservation Reserve Program grew every year for nearly a decade. Almost overnight, farmers began leaving the program

    *face palm* A "conservation" program with no hooks to prevent the farmers from exiting the program whenever they wanted? No permanent conservation easement?

    Ok, I can believe that but this?

    Landowners filled in wetlands.

    I'd like to see some evidence for this given the way the EPA and Corps of Engineers comes down on people doing that.

  • kinnath||

    Landowners filled in wetlands.

    I expect this is a mischaracterization. Lots of Iowa farmers laid lots of drainage tile through lots of marginal farmland and started planting corn.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    Ok, I'd buy that. Throw a scoop of dirt in a genuine wetlands and just watch the fireworks.

  • kinnath||

    You could take this marginal land and grow cattails instead of pasture, then the feds would label it as wetlands.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Or even fake wetlands. Where I went to College had part of their campus denied further development because the alteration of drainage patterns when they built the main campus had made it into a wetland. It wasn't an existing habitat or anything, it just got wetter than a threshold because of developments elsewhere on the plot.

  • Sevo||

    UnCivilServant|11.12.13 @ 12:22PM|#
    "Or even fake wetlands...."

    "The presence of wetlands, which the city first detected in 1999, put an end to the plans of Keenan’s development company, which aimed to build 85 homes on the rectangular lot, and prompted the company to sue the city.

    Walker agreed with Keenan’s attorneys that it was the city that created the wetlands in the first place during a public works project begun in 1983 to improve storm drainage in the area and build roads for a subdivision just south of Beachwood off Terrace Avenue.

    Worse, the city failed to realize that its own contractor created the mess, wrote Walker, who rebuffed the city’s argument that wetlands pre-existed the project."
    http://www.ibabuzz.com/insider.....-woodshed/

  • UnCivilServant||

    Watch, next they'll have a zoning issue.

  • Sevo||

    Last I heard, there was a good chance the city of Half Moon Bay might well cease to exist after paying the fine.
    So the zoning will be County...

  • UnCivilServant||

    It was for the sweet sweet earth saving bio-fuels, so they were willfully ignorant in the name of ideology.

  • A Frayed Knot||

    My understanding is that these subsidies also brought a lot of pain to the poor in the Third World. By making ethanol more financially attractive, it not only diverted corn towards ethanol production, it gave farmers a reason to choose to produce corn over other staples, such as wheat and rice, thereby driving up those prices. In fact, I've heard it suggested that the economic misery driven by higher food prices helped bring about the "Arab Spring."

    So, once again we see progressives doing their best to screw the poor.

    Every time I meet a progressive, I see another poster child for retroactive abortion.

  • kinnath||

    it gave farmers a reason to choose to produce corn over other staples, such as wheat and rice,

    Uh, no. You grow corn or soybeans in one place; wheat in another; and rice in a third.

    What it did was divert soybeans to corn and corn to alcohol reducing the supply of both soy and corn. This makes soy and corn more expensive for food production and drive demand toward wheat and rice driving those prices up as well.

    Overall, it is a total fuck-you to poor people around the world.

  • A Frayed Knot||

    My mistake, thanks for the correction. Clearly, agriculture is not my forte.

  • kinnath||

    Continuing:

    Corn turns into feed turns into meat (expensive protein); Soy turns into cheap protein. So ethanol reduces the availability of both cheap and expensive protein and then drives people to starches (wheat and rice) which also become more expensive.

    Ethanol is a truly immoral way to make soccer moms feel less guilty about driving SUVs while destroying the lives of poor people in 2nd and 3rd world countries.

  • Sevo||

    Doesn't corn serve to make the meat protein less expensive than grass-feeding it?

  • Brett L||

    Doesn't corn serve to make the meat protein less expensive than grass-feeding it?

    Grass feeding is expensive. You need lots of high quality grass. I've seen a lot of reports where people trying to do grass-fed beeves end up as grass farmers rather than cattle ranchers. You definitely need a lot more grazing land, and spend a ton of money on grass and nitrating fertilizers.

    Although there's a guy in GA I know who has a pretty efficient operation where he feeds his free range chickens bonemeal and other cattle offal, and mixes the chicken and cow shit to pretty much cover his fertilizer needs. He still has to buy grass seed, but he's a close to a closed loop, zero waste operation as you can get. Even so, I'm not sure he'd be doing well or staying open if he wasn't getting boutique prices for his beef, chicken, and eggs.

  • some guy||

    Even so, I'm not sure he'd be doing well or staying open if he wasn't getting boutique prices for his beef, chicken, and eggs.

    Yet more evidence that capitalism and free(ish) markets can and will drive us to the sustainable, enviro-friendly world that progressives claim to want, but are hell-bent on preventing.

  • Sevo||

    "Even so, I'm not sure he'd be doing well or staying open if he wasn't getting boutique prices for his beef, chicken, and eggs."

    So long as no one is getting fooled about how 'green' it is, have at it.

  • Brett L||

    Well, he has done a really good job at getting rid of external fertilizers, and just keeping a good amount of N and P on his property rather than dumping raw nitrate and phosphate fertilizer and letting the excess runoff.

    So, from that point it is efficient, which I think of as green. It isn't the cheapest solution, however.

  • kinnath||

    Yes. Corn feed is much cheaper that grass-feeding. So they're driving up the cost of the lowest cost solution.

    By "expensive" protein, I am referring to the basic complaint that it costs more money and many more natural resources to produce animal protein than plant protein. Only the rich economies can afford to have meat (Senator Grassely was lampooned in the press for saying poor countries should just deal with it).

    But overall, chicken, egg, pork, and beef, and milk prices are all much higher in the US because of ethanol production. And even farther out of reach for developing countries.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Meanwhile, they are actually despoiling the environment with increased fertilizer and pesticide runoff and shrinking habitat.

    It's not like they weren't warned about this twenty years ago. It was quite predictable, and it did not require dubious computer models of an incomprehensibly complex system to make the prediction.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I realize the AP knows their audience, but I am a lot more interested in the economic disaster which is ethanol.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    these subsidies also brought a lot of pain to the poor in the Third World.

    Progressives love the poor in theory; in practice they pursue pernicious and destructive policies with a vengeance.

  • Brett L||

    If there were no more poor, who would they feel superior to while helping? It would be like Jesus saving the Devil.

  • some guy||

    Or like Jesus feeding the poor instead of just "saving" them.

  • Sevo||

    "Progressives love the poor in theory;"

    The must! Most everything they do makes more of 'em.

  • JidaKida||

    The whole thing sounds pretty serious to me dude.

    www.Privacy-Road.tk

  • Adamsmith1776||

    Putting Ethanol in Gasoline is a complete waste. Its proper place is a nicely charred oak barrel for 6 months or longer, at which point it turns into a gorgeous amber fluid that goes well with branch water, muddled mint leaves (with a bit of sugar), or Coca Cola.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    So, if Big Oil is so ever powerful, how did this ethanol crap ever get started to begin with?

  • GILMORE||

    Bwaaa hahahahahahahahaha

    Agricultural Lobby and State Politicians gang up on BIG OIL =

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4Cf4C_LGik

  • ||

    Farmers use lots of diesel.

    Same with fertilizer manufactures.

  • GILMORE||

    How to Speak Like a Politician =

    ""There is no question air quality, water quality is benefiting from this [Ethanol] industry," [Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack] said.

    But the administration never actually conducted the required air and water studies to determine whether that's true.

    In an interview with the AP after his speech, Vilsack said he didn't mean that ethanol production was good for the air and water. He simply meant that gasoline mixed with ethanol is cleaner than gasoline alone."

    Never mind the water pollution in Des Moines.

    How to Talk Like a Government Agency =

    "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

    See, we have the money to Bullshit = but actually *verifying* our bullshit costs MORE MONEY, so...if you don't mind giving us more money, we'll be sure to apply it to the Verification Fund after the next round of New Bullshit, which of course will require funding...

  • ||

    The left will just blame Bush and nothing will change.

  • ReasonableS||

    It is environmentalist who are pushing for change. Ethanol isn't just bad for agribusiness that depends on cheap corn, it is also bad for the environment.

    I am a little surprised that the author is in favor of the government paying farmers not to grow product, but it could be he just appears to be supporting it as a consequence of bemoaning the government creating an artificially high price for corn.

  • Sam Grove||

    This describes the problem with subsidies to any industry, the instant creation of a special interest group.

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