Here we go again. We didn’t think it could get much worse than the Associated Press hit piece on ethanol in late 2013. But an ethanol hatchet job by Bloomberg published this week actually rivals the AP story in terms of one-sidedness and sheer sensationalism. The Bloomberg article repeats myths and misinformation about ethanol’s environmental impacts that have been disproven time and time again by reasonable academics, government researchers, and responsible journalists. It’s growing a bit passé, really, to trot out the “land use change” and “dead zone” arguments that have been thoroughly debunked and discredited by real-world data and the benefit of hindsight.
It almost feels like Bloomberg took the bait on a desperate story pitch by the oil industry’s PR firm. How else could they explain the curious timing of the story and the unbalanced sources? After all, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Clean Air Task Force, and Friends of the Earth (FOE) were never onboard with ethanol or the RFS and some other enviro groups jumped ship years ago. So, why is it suddenly newsworthy that some so-called “green groups” are “reconsidering” the RFS, as the article’s headline and lead suggest? It’s also a tad interesting that many of the quoted sources were circulating a link to the Bloomberg article via social media within minutes of it being posted.
What’s more, the story is littered with quotes from sources who have received funding from the American Petroleum Institute (e.g., John DeCicco from the University of Michigan) or are part of the oil industry front group known as “Smarter Fuel Future” (e.g., Environmental Working Group and Friends of the Earth). The article also liberally quotes Rep. Peter Welch, who not only has pedaled (peddled?) for Big Oil but also signed an anti-RFS letter to fellow Congressmen that was secretly authored by a major oil refiner (a story first reported, ironically, by Bloomberg).
But beyond the questions about the true genesis of this story and the motivations behind it, the article is simply wrong on the facts and fails to provide any data or scientific references to support its statements or validate the talking points parroted by some of the quoted sources. Thus, we once again feel compelled to correct the record and provide science-based and data-driven facts about ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standard.
“Higher than expected”? Really? EPA’s 2010 final rule for the RFS2 suggested corn ethanol would eventually reduce GHG emissions by just 21% compared to petroleum. But the latest analysis of ethanol’s lifecycle carbon impacts from the U.S. Department of Energy finds that 2012-era corn ethanol was already reducing GHG emissions by 34% compared to petroleum—and that even includes emissions related to “indirect land use changes” tied to hypothetical cropland conversions that never occurred in the real world. Further, a 2015 study by Life Cycle Associates concluded that “…the RFS2 has resulted in significant GHG reductions, with cumulative CO2 savings of 353 million metric tonnes over the period of implementation. The GHG reductions are due to the greater than expected savings from ethanol and other biofuels.”
Wow. Amazingly, Bloomberg fails to provide any sort of scientific reference or credible evidence for these statements. And the article isn’t simply paraphrasing something an EWG or FOE spokesperson said; rather, it is reported as a matter of fact. But these statements are pure fiction.
In reality, the footprint of U.S. cropland has continued to shrink during the “RFS era.” Total cropland is nearly 100 million acres (20%) lower today than it was in 1969, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture and EPA data. How can Bloomberg argue that cropland is expanding into native prairie (much of which is protected, by the way), when the hard data show cropland is contracting?
Sources: 1969-2012 from USDA Agriculture Census; 2013-2015 from USEPA (includes cropland producing crops, idle cropland, and cropland pasture)
USDA data further show that some 50 million acres of idle and fallow cropland is available to return to production if warranted. These lands are not part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Why would farmers “plow under” prairie to expand cropland, when there is surplus idle cropland available?
Source: USDA Ag Census
And as for the so-called “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, the size of the hypoxic zone has actually trended downward since the RFS2 was adopted in 2007. In fact, the dead zone has been at or below the 5,000 square kilometer goal targeted in EPA’s action plan in two of the last four years. In addition, farmers have greatly reduced the amount of fertilizer required to produce a bushel of corn.
Source: Louisiana State University
When Bloomberg interviewed RFA for the story, we shared information on the shrinking footprint of agriculture and the smaller size of the dead zone. But none of that made it into the final story.
It’s true that there are indeed a number of experts who disagree with fringe environmental groups about the impact of the RFS on agricultural land use—so why didn’t the Bloomberg talk to any of them?! It’s likely that experts from Iowa State University, Purdue University, Michigan State University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Illinois, and others would have been happy to discuss their findings with Bloomberg.
Was land withdrawn from CRP at the same time corn plantings grew in the 2007-10 timeframe? Yes, some CRP land returned to crop production. But CRP is not “prairie” or “wetlands”! It is former cropland that was set aside during times of low commodity prices. Thus, most CRP ground has relatively low carbon stock rates, and returning it to production has little impact on carbon emissions. In any case, farmers had no choice but to reduce CRP acres because the 2008 Farm Bill reduced the maximum amount of land that could be enrolled in the program from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres—an 18% cut. The limit on CRP acres was lowered again to just 24 million acres in the 2014 Farm Bill. Why would Bloomberg, or anyone else, be surprised that some former CRP land is returning to crop production when the limit on enrollments dropped some 40% since 2008-09?
That’s true; corn acres and production are up since 2005. But, as shown above, that doesn’t mean total cropland is expanding and replacing prairie and wetlands. As corn acres have slightly expanded, acres for other less profitable crops like wheat, cotton, oats, barley, sorghum have fallen. Higher yields for all of these crops mean less land is needed to meet demand. Since 2005, the reduction in wheat and cotton acres alone has been greater than the increase in corn acres.
EPA’s decision to track compliance with this provision of the law on an aggregate basis is perfectly logical and practical. If total cropland acres are falling, if large tracts of idle and fallow cropland are available, and if there is no defensible evidence that prairie or other native lands are being converted, then EPA’s approach is more than justified. Conversely, if cropland were to increase beyond 2007 levels, the regulations require that biofuel producers must document that their feedstock came from land that was classified as cropland in 2007. The bottom line is that this safeguard has worked as intended.
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In the end, the Bloomberg article serves only to mislead the public about the impacts of biofuels and the RFS on the environment. We hope the next time Bloomberg writes about ethanol or the RFS, it takes the time to carefully research the subject and include more balanced perspectives.