The Associated Press (AP) prematurely released a report criticizing ethanol last week that triggered strong criticism and backlash from the corn and the biofuels industry. AP then republished the story today, allowing Pro Farmer and other stakeholders to examine these claims, many of which are indeed inaccurate or an oversimplification of a situation.
Following are some "fact checks" regarding some of the most glaring inaccuracies of the story, followed by some reactions from industry stakeholders.
(For more, read the full fact sheet from the Renewable Fuel Association, the Iowa Corn Promotion board or Fuels America.)
"Five million acres of land set aside for conservation—more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined—have vanished on Obama's watch." —AP
The 2008 Farm Bill lowered the cap on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres starting in 2010. Therefore, the number of acres enrolled in CRP declined from 33.7 million in 2009 to 31.3 million acres in 2010, 31.1 million acres in 2011 and 29.5 million acres in 2012. The new farm bill is expected to reduce the CRP cap even further to either 24 million acres or 25 million acres.
In addition, the CRP program is designed so that this land can return to ag production as warranted by market conditions.
Further, to look only at CRP acres is simplistic. There are many conservation programs, many of which have also seen enrollment limits changes in recent years.
Source: Fuels America
"Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil." —AP
Enrollment in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) hit a record high of 2.65 million acres in 2012. The enrollment authority or the program expired on Sept. 30, so new enrollments are on hold until lawmakers reach an agreement on a new Farm Bill.
"Farmers planted 15 million more acres of corn last year than before the ethanol boom."
"It didn’t take long for reality to prove the Obama administration wrong. The regulations (RFS2) took effect in July 2010. That September corn passed $4 on its way to about $7, where it has been most of this year." —AP
Depleted corn stocks due to drought in 2012 sent corn prices sharply higher, giving farmers incentive to increase corn acres. This was the major driver of the price increase, not ethanol. Further, the rise was largely due to crop switching rather than cultivation of new land.
As to corn prices, futures prices have recently dipped to three-year lows and according to the daily continuation chart and prices have not seen trade in the $7 area since March. To say they have been in the $7 area most of the year is simply untrue.
Historically, the overwhelmingly majority of corn in the United States has been turned into livestock feed. But in 2010, for the first time, fuel was the No. 1 use for corn in America. That's been true every year since." —AP
RFA points out that this ignores the fact that "each 56-pound bushel of corn processed by an ethanol plant results in 2.8 gallons of fuel AND 17 pounds of co-product animal feed. Thus, one-third of every bushel destined for ethanol actually returns to the livestock feed market in the form of distillers grains or corn gluten."
"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." —AP
There are a number of peer-reviewed studies showing renewable fuels produce fewer life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gasoline, including ones by:
Indeed, the Argonne lifecycle analysis found that corn ethanol reduced greenhouse gas emission by an average of 34% relative to petroleum gasoline.
"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." —AP
Fertilizer use and price data from the Economic Research Service signals farmers are actually using less fertilizer today that in the past, both as a whole and in terms of fertilizer used per bushel as farmers have shifted focus to efficiency when it comes to nutrient management.
RFA reports, "Approximately 90% of ethanol plants operating today use natural gas as a power source, while just 10% use coal. Ethanol plants have reduced thermal energy and electricity use by 36% and 38%, respectively, since 1995."
The AP article extensively quoted Iowa farmer Leroy Perkins. In the video below, Perkins says he believes his commentary was inaccurately skewed in the story.
Source: Fuels America
The RFA in a fact-check response to the article noted:
"The lead reporter responsible for the story interviewed RFA staff on multiple occasions. RFA provided indisputable facts, peer-reviewed studies, and government data documenting ethanol’s positive impacts. Yet, the AP consciously chose to ignore this material and instead opted to publish a salacious and terribly unbalanced account of the effects of corn production and ethanol on the environment."
"At best, the AP article is lazy journalism, but at worst, it appears purposefully designed to damage the ethanol industry," Executive Vice President of the American Coalition for Ethanol said in a press release.
National Corn Growers Association President Martin Barbe released the following statement:
"Today’s controversial story on corn ethanol and land use appears to simply be based on a complete misunderstanding of modern agriculture generally and the Conservation Reserve Program specifically, but unfortunately, the problem is much deeper. It is discouraging that the Associated Press appears to be following a political agenda which clearly targets our only renewable alternative to imported petroleum. Even the headline is a colorful but inaccurate indictment – ‘The secret, dirty cost of Obama's green power push.’ Secret? There are no secrets in how land is used, as their own reporting shows. Acres are tracked, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture guarantees a high level of transparency. No, these watch words ‘secret’ and ‘dirty’ show clearly that the reporters were sensationalizing the issue to a high degree, which is conduct unbecoming a true journalist."
For a heated Q&A session with the author of the story, Matt Apuzzo, click here.