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Prairies vanish in push for green energy

By Chet Brokaw and Jack Gillum
Associated Press?

Robert Malsom checks corn in one of his fields near Roscoe, S.D. Malsam nearly went broke in the 1980s when corn was cheap. So now that prices are high and he can finally make a profit, he's not about to apologize for ripping up prairieland to plant corn. (AP Photos/Doug Dreyer)

Robert Malsom checks corn in one of his fields near Roscoe, S.D. (AP Photos/Doug Dreyer)

ROSCOE, S.D. — Robert Malsam nearly went broke in the 1980s when corn was cheap.

Now that he finally can make a profit, he’s not about to apologize for ripping up prairie land to plant corn.

Across the Dakotas and Nebraska, more than 1 million acres of the Great Plains are giving way to cornfields, fueled in part by America’s green energy policy, which requires oil companies blend billions of gallons of corn ethanol into their gasoline.

In 2010, 2011 and 2012 fuel was the No. 1 use for corn in America. That kept prices high.

“It’s not hard to do the math there as to what’s profitable to have,” Malsam said. “I think an ethanol plant is a farmer’s friend.”

What the green energy program has made profitable, however, is far from green. A policy intended to reduce global warming is encouraging a farming practice that could worsen it.

Plowing untouched grassland releases carbon dioxide that has been naturally locked in the soil. It also increases erosion and requires farmers use fertilizers and other industrial chemicals.

It appeared so damaging that scientists warned that America’s corn-for-ethanol policy would fail as an anti-global warming strategy if too many farmers plowed over virgin land.

The Obama administration argued that would not happen but did not monitor whether it actually happened.

It did.

More than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost since the federal government required that gasoline be blended with increasing amounts of ethanol, an Associated Press analysis of satellite data found. Plots that were wild grass or pastures seven years ago are now corn and soybean fields.

In South Dakota, more than 370,000 acres of grassland have been uprooted for farming since 2006. In Edmunds County, at least 42,000 acres of grassland have become cropland.

Malsam runs a 13-square-mile family farm there. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat. Each year, the family converts another 160 acres from grass to cropland.

Nebraska has lost at least 830,000 acres of grassland, a total larger than New York City, Los Angeles and Dallas combined.

“It’s great to see farmers making money,” said Craig Cox, of the Environmental Working Group. “It hasn’t always been that way.”

Cox advocates for clean energy but opposes the ethanol mandate.

A combine works through one of Robert Malsam's fields Oct. 24 near Roscoe, S.D. Malsam’s farm in the past five years began making a profit because of America’s corn-for-ethanol policy. (AP photo by Doug Dreyer)

A combine works through one of Robert Malsam’s fields Oct. 24 near Roscoe, S.D. Malsam’s farm in the past five years began making a profit because of America’s corn-for-ethanol policy.

“If we’re going to push the land this hard,” he said, “we really need to intensify conservation in lockstep with production, and that’s just not happening.”

Jeff Lautt, CEO of Poet, which operates ethanol refineries across the country, said it’s up to farmers to decide how to use their land.

“The last I checked, it is still an open market,” he said, “and farmers that own land are free to farm their land to the extent they think they can make money on it or whatever purpose they need.”

The AP’s analysis used government satellite data to count how much grassland existed in 2006 in each county and then compare each plot to corresponding satellite data from 2012. The data from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Agriculture identify corn and soybean fields. That let the AP see which plots of grassland became cropland.

To reach its conservative estimate of 1.2 million acres lost, the AP excluded grassland that had been set aside under the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, in which old farmland is allowed to return to a near-natural state.

Corn prices more than doubled in the years after Congress passed the ethanol mandate in 2007. Now, Malsam said, farmers can make about $500 an acre planting corn. His farm became profitable in the past five years.

Four miles south, the town of Roscoe relies in part on incomes such as Malsam’s to support a school, a restaurant, a bank, a grocery store and a large farm machinery store.

The manager of the equipment dealership, Kaleb Rodgers, said the booming farm economy has helped the town and the dealership. The business last year sold a dozen combines at about $300,000 apiece, plus more than 60 tractors worth between $100,000 and $300,000, he said.

“If we didn’t have any farmers, we wouldn’t have a community here,” Rodgers said. “We wouldn’t have a business. I wouldn’t be sitting here. I wouldn’t be able to feed my family.

“I think ethanol is a very good thing.”

AP writers Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo also contributed to this report from Washington.

A timeline of recent ethanol events

August 2005 — President George W. Bush signs the Energy Policy Act of 2005, requiring oil companies to add ethanol to their gasoline. Called the Renewable Fuels Standard, this mandate begins with a 4-billion-gallon requirement in 2006 and doubles by 2012. Corn is selling for $1.95 a bushel.

January 2007 — In his State of the Union speech, President Bush calls on Congress to require production of 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017. It would effectively be a huge increase in the ethanol mandate. Corn is selling for $3.05 a bushel.

February 2007 — Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, the nation’s No. 2 corn-producing state, declares his candidacy for president. In his speech he hails “homegrown, alternative fuels like ethanol.” Obama is a strong supporter of passing a new, higher Renewable Fuels Standard.

December 2007 — Congress passes the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Bush signs it into law. It expands the renewable fuels standard to require 36 billion gallons of ethanol and other fuels to be blended into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel by 2022. Corn ethanol production would max out at 15 billion gallons in 2015. Corn is selling for $3.77.

January 2008 — A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicts that the ethanol mandate will increase nitrogen pollution in rivers, worsening the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, which cannot support sea life.

February 2008 — A study in the journal Science warns that if U.S. biofuel policy encourages farmers to plow into untouched grassland or farmland that has been set aside for conservation, it will undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. That’s because plowing into grassland releases carbon dioxide. The Department of Energy responds that the new fuel standard can be met without plowing into any conservation land.

2008 — The amount of farmland set aside for conservation suddenly decreases. About 34 million acres are enrolled in the government’s voluntary Conservation Reserve Program, a drop of about 2 million from 2007.

May 2009 — President Obama’s EPA takes the first steps toward implementing the new ethanol mandate. Government experts conclude that corn ethanol is, on average, 16 percent better than gasoline when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. The law requires that new ethanol plants be 20 percent better.

2009 — Enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program falls again, this time by nearly 1 million acres.

March 2010 — After lobbying from the agriculture industry, EPA publishes its final rule on the new ethanol mandate. The new analysis shows ethanol is 21 percent better than gasoline, slightly better than required by law. As part of the analysis, the government assumes corn prices will rise only slightly, to $3.59 a bushel, by 2022.

August 2010 — Corn sells for $3.65, already eclipsing the government’s long-term price estimate.

2010 — For the first time on record, ethanol is the No. 1 use for American corn, eclipsing livestock feed. Some 2.4 million more acres disappear from the Conservation Reserve Program.

February 2011 — Corn sells for $5.65 a bushel.

2011 — Farmland acreage set aside for conservation continues to fall, this time by 173,000 acres. About 4.8 million acres have been lost since 2006.

January 2012 — A 30-year-old federal subsidy for ethanol expires, along with a tariff on imported ethanol. Ethanol blenders were getting a tax credit of 45 cents per gallon. Corn sells for $6.07.

2012 — Another 1.5 million acres of conservation land disappears, bringing the total to more than 6 million since 2006.

March 2013 — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uses satellite data to show that rising corn prices have encouraged farmers to convert grassland to cropland, which releases carbon dioxide into the air. The Renewable Fuel Association responds that “the extremely high rate of error associated with the satellite imagery” makes the study’s results “highly questionable and irrelevant to the biofuels policy debate.” Corn sells for $7.13.

May 2013 — Des Moines Water Works in Iowa reports historic levels of nitrates in the drinking-water supply, blames agricultural fertilizer.

July 2013 — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announces the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone has increased. Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, blames ethanol production.

August 2013 — EPA finalizes renewable fuel standard for 2013, requiring 16.55 billion gallons of biofuels, mostly ethanol, to be consumed in U.S. this year. Corn sells for $6.21.

– The Associated Press

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