Science & Technology

Obama's Corn Ethanol Environmental Disaster


Andreblais: Dreamstime

The 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: