Ethanol industry disputes findings of AP probe

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The ethanol industry is disputing an Associated Press investigation that linked production of the corn-based fuel to environmental damage.

Ahead of the story’s scheduled release today, the ethanol lobby attacked the accuracy of the AP findings — that the federal ethanol mandate has spurred the conversion of wetlands and prairies to cropland and has had questionable greenhouse gas emissions benefits.

Ethanol proponents accused the news organization of using dubious tactics to gain information, including misleading people in Wayne County, Iowa, where much of the reporting took place.

“We find it to be just flabbergasting,” said Geoff Cooper, the Renewable Fuels Association’s vice president of research and analysis. “I think there’s probably more truth in this week’s National Enquirer than there is in the AP story.”

The AP investigation comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of the ethanol industry on Capitol Hill and as U.S. EPA is considering rolling back next year’s ethanol-production target for the first time since the renewable fuel standard became law in 2007. The oil, livestock, food and engine manufacturing industries are campaigning with environmentalists against the RFS.

The AP found that corn ethanol production was to blame for the reduced number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program, a key Agriculture Department program that pays farmers to idle their lands for conservation reasons. Using government satellite data, AP identified at least 1.2 million acres of grassland in Nebraska and the Dakotas that have been converted to corn and soybeans since 2006.

But ethanol supporters said that the report seemed designed more to take down the industry than to explore it objectively. The industry says that the decrease in conservation acreage reflected a congressional lowering of the cap in the Conservation Reserve Program, not expanding ethanol production. And it disputed contentions in the article that overall cropland has increased since the renewable fuel standard was put in place and that ethanol production takes up more than 40 percent of the corn crop.

Cooper also highlighted studies that found ethanol production reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 34 percent compared to petroleum-based fuel.

The ethanol lobby also accused AP of using misleading tactics to report the story. Leroy Perkins, an Iowa farmer featured in the story, said yesterday he had been led to believe AP journalists were in Iowa to report on county fairs and absentee landlords, not ethanol production.

“I was very interested in having them come on that, thinking that they would do some good work for the fairs of Iowa,” Perkins said. “None of that was ever brought out.”

The AP stands by its story.

“We want our investigative reporting efforts focused on topics that truly matter to people, that touch lives and that can provide information of real value to our members and customers and their audiences,” Washington bureau chief Sally Buzbee said in a press release touting the story last week. “The unintended [consequences] of green energy, when it comes to a program like ethanol, is truly one of those topics.”