Refineries, energy crops destroying habitat — report

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Millions of acres of wildlife habitat are being lost to ethanol production near refineries, the National Wildlife Federation said in a study published today.

The NWF said aerial surveys and land classification data indicate as much as 4.2 million acres of wildlife habitat and other land within 100 miles of ethanol plants were converted to bioenergy crops between 2008 and 2012, in the years following the federal ethanol mandate.

“Our analysis shows an undeniable connection between corn ethanol production and habitat destruction,” said Ben Larson, NWF senior manager of forestry and bioenergy, who co-authored the study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol producers, dismissed the report as a rehash of earlier flawed studies by the same authors.

“The only difference this time around is that the National Wildlife Federation, a longtime opponent of the renewable fuel standard and antagonist to the American farmer, is explicitly acknowledged as a funder and contributor to the work,” said Geoff Cooper, RFA’s senior vice president.

“But the assumptions are still faulty, the methodology is still defective, and the conclusions are still wrong,” Cooper said in a statement.

Researchers from the NWF, the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and the University of Wisconsin said land conversion occurred at the highest rates in close proximity to ethanol plants and declined with greater distances. Of the 4.2 million acres converted, 3.6 million had been grassland, the authors wrote.

They broke down results by region, reporting that nearly a million acres of arable grassland was converted to cropland in the Dakotas, followed by Missouri, Kansas and Iowa.

With ethanol production growing, in part to supply exports, more grassland conversion near refineries appears likely, the authors said.

And while U.S. EPA has authority to stem ethanol volumes for environmental reasons, such as land-use implications, the agency has never done so, they said.

The study was released on the same day EPA’s mandated renewable fuel levels for 2017 took effect after a regulatory freeze expired.

Cooper, from the RFA, said the NWF report relies on satellite imagery that has difficulty distinguishing among native grassland, pastures, hay fields or former cropland enrolled in federal conservation set-asides.

“In reality, there is no defensible evidence to support the notion that ethanol expansion has somehow led to massive conversion of native grassland,” Cooper said, adding that increased corn production has come from higher yields and switching from other crops.

The study delves into an issue that EPA is supposed to examine through reports to Congress every three years. The agency is several years late on that report, despite pressure from Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and other lawmakers to deliver it.