Obama’s push for “green” energy turns out to have a massive environmental cost

Is the federal ethanol policy is doing more harm than good?

Topics: Ethanol, Corn Crops, Obama administration, EPA, carbon emissions, Green energy, ,

A damning investigation from the Associated Press exposes the severe environmental impact of the boom in ethanol production, and calls out the Obama administration for pushing a destructive policy in the face of evidence that it is doing far more harm than was initially promised, not to mention what officials will now admit to. As the writers explain in a Q&A:

Everyone knows the environmental cost of oil and natural gas. But the Obama administration rarely acknowledges that its green initiatives have costs, too. And the government allows green companies to do not-so-green things. For wind power, that means the government looks the other way as turbines kill eagles in violation of federal law. For ethanol, the government accepts the environmental consequences in hopes the industry will develop cleaner next-generation biofuels.

…But when you factor in land conversion — and the erosion, pollution and greenhouse gases that come with it — ethanol doesn’t look as good. Independent scientists say it’s tough to make a case for ethanol as long as farmers are plowing over virgin prairie and conservation land. That’s why ethanol industry executives don’t always factor those effects into their calculations when they say their product is far cleaner than oil.

Craig Cox ,with the Environmental Working Group, calls the 2007 federal mandate to blend gasoline with corn ethanol an “ecological disaster.” The environmental cost, according to the AP writers, is massive:

  • Five million acres of land that had been set aside for conservation were transformed back into farmland to meet the growing demand for corn ethanol.
  • 1.2 million acres of virgin land have already been converted to corn and soybean fields since the mandate was passed.
  • Untold amounts of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere from the converted conservation lands, as well as from ethanol factories, which typically burn coal or gas.
  • A 5,800 square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was caused by “billions of pounds” nitrogen fertilizer (made using natural gas) that washed down the Mississippi River. Experts say it was worsened by the mandate.


13 billion gallons of corn ethanol were required this year by the mandate, up from 9 billion in 2007, when it was first passed by Congress. That’s gearing up to a federally mandated goal of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022.

The AP argues that this isn’t sound policy: the EPA initially calculated that ethanol would provide only a 16 percent improvement in carbon emissions as compared to gasoline, and only by 2022. By law, biofuels are supposed to be 20 percent greener than gasoline — by adjusting its model, they managed to amend that initial figure to 21 percent. ”If you corrected any of a number of things, it would be on the other side of 20 percent,” Richard Plevin of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told the AP. Whether or not this was purposeful, many of the assumptions they ultimately relied on to reach that number proved incorrect.

The expose is already being called “smear” by ethanol producers, corn growers and its lobbying and public relations firms, who have launched what the AP is calling an “unusual campaign” to criticize and alter the story. The writers, however, insist they have the government data, interviews and scientific research to back up their assertions: that ethanol isn’t nearly as green as the government insists.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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