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Boom in Oil Production Causes Bust in Prairie Sod

August 23, 2016


As a longtime oil industry apologist, Mark Perry has mastered the art of whirling the spotlight away from the evils of our addiction to fossil fuels and retraining it on invented “problems” associated with petroleum alternatives. The American Enterprise Institute scholar’s latest column on ethanol (“Unwind the Ethanol Mandate,” published by U.S. News and World Report on Aug. 18) is just one more example of the hypocritical deflection that has so endeared him to the oil lobby. Mr. Perry suggests (without any scientific support or a single citation) that ethanol expansion has somehow led to “destruction” of prairie in the Great Plains, but says not a word about the land and water impacts of the same region’s runaway fracking boom. As it happens, there is no credible evidence whatsoever that growth in ethanol production has caused farmers to convert native grasslands to corn fields. While it is true that corn acres have expanded slightly over the past decade as demand for livestock feed, exports and ethanol has increased, the nation’s total cropland footprint is actually shrinking. The area dedicated to crops today is nearly 100 million acres smaller (20%) than it was in 1969, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency. Cropland has decreased 6% just since 2005 when the Renewable Fuel Standard was adopted. In other words, the bump in corn acres isn’t coming at the expense of native prairie; rather, some fields that previously grew wheat, cotton, oats, or other less profitable crops have switched to growing corn. Some former cropland previously enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) also has returned to crop production (largely as a consequence of recent Congressional mandates to reduce the size of the CRP program). In any case, USDA says more than 50 million acres of idle or fallow cropland—an area the size of Nebraska—is available to return to production if warranted by market conditions. So, why would farmers till native grasslands when so much idle cropland is available? In reality, the additional corn needed to support increasing demand hasn’t come from cropland expansion. Instead, it has come from increased productivity. Thanks to tremendous advances in technology, farmers today are producing far more corn per unit of land than in the past. In 1980, farmers planted 84 million acres of corn, with each acre yielding 2.5 tons. This year, farmers planted 94 million acres of corn, with each acre producing 4.9 tons. That means corn yields have essentially doubled, while planted acres have been relatively stable. The 2016 crop will be 130% larger than the 1980 crop, but planted acres are up only 12%. Indeed, it’s fairly obvious that Perry’s yarn is simply intended to shift attention away from the real culprit behind destruction of prairie in the Great Plains—the boom in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for oil and natural gas. A 2015 study by researchers from the University of Montana, Oklahoma State University, and other universities found that the land area occupied by oil and gas activities in the Great Plains expanded from about 600,000 acres in 2000 to 7.5 million acres by 2012. According to the authors, that’s an area the size of three Yellowstone National Parks. The study found that pristine rangeland, forest, and wetlands were cleared to make room for oil and gas drilling pads, roads, rail lines, and storage facilities. Oil and gas activities also led to a significant loss of cropland in the region. The researchers concluded that “oil and gas may further expand into native rangelands” and that “hydraulic fracturing technology…[also] has profound implications for hydrological, water-quality, and water-use regimes.” While it was no surprise to us to see Mr. Perry throwing stones from the oil lobby’s glass house, U.S. News and World Report readers deserve to hear the truth about the real perpetrator of prairie conversion in the Great Plains—the rapid ascent of fracking.