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In Iowa, Questions Arise on Impact of Ethanol Production

January 28, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Al Gore testified before Congress Wednesday on the urgency of energy policy reform and made the case for easing America's reliance on carbon-based fuels. Heidi Cullen of Climate Central reports on an emerging debate over the changing land use and impact of ethanol production in Iowa.

JIM LEHRER: Next, connecting the dots on energy, the economy, and national security. That was the focus of former Vice President Gore’s testimony today before a U.S. Senate committee. He urged lawmakers to address what he called the “climate crisis.”

FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: We must face up to this urgent and unprecedented threat to the existence of our civilization at a time when our nation must simultaneously solve two other worsening crises.

Our economy is in its deepest recession since the 1930s, and our national security is endangered by a vicious terrorist network and the complex challenge of ending the war in Iraq honorably, while winning the military and political struggle in Afghanistan.

As we search for solutions to all three of these challenges, it is becoming ever clearer that they are linked by a common thread: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels.

JIM LEHRER: And that leads us to a story in Iowa. It’s about corn farmers producing ethanol and is another in our occasional series on global warming. The reporter is Heidi Cullen, a climatologist with Climate Central, a nonpartisan scientific research group.

HEIDI CULLEN, Climate Central: Here in Iowa, they say corn is king, and with good reason. Iowa is the nation’s largest producer of corn.

Over the last several years, Iowa has also become the nation’s leading producer of corn ethanol. Cultivating corn for ethanol triggered big changes in farming practices.

Since then, falling oil prices and a faltering economy have taken their toll on the ethanol industry. But the earlier spike in production has already raised serious questions about how changing land use in Iowa is impacting other parts of the world, and also the climate.

CRAIG GRIFFIEON, farmer, Iowa: Farming’s like going to Las Vegas and — and rolling the dice and losing it on the tables or playing blackjack, except it takes nine months to lose it. So the house always wins, yes.

HEIDI CULLEN: Craig Griffieon and his wife, LeVon, are sixth-generation farmers in Ankeny, Iowa, who know all about those changes in farming practices and fortunes.

CRAIG GRIFFIEON: I’m making more money doing it with the chemicals.

HEIDI CULLEN: Hoping to improve the odds for farmers, Congress in 2005 created the renewable fuel standard. It mandates that 9 billion gallons of corn ethanol be produced in 2008, climbing to 15 billion by 2015. Farmers like Dennis Bogaards are grateful.

DENNIS BOGAARDS, farmer, Iowa: You know, ethanol production in the state of Iowa has really helped out our corn prices. It’s taken a lot of the excess corn that we did have in the state and we’ve moved it into the biofuel area. Ethanol production has created a lot of jobs.

HEIDI CULLEN: Bogaards, who lives in Pella, Iowa, runs the 900-acre farm that his grandfather bought in 1945. When the price of corn per bushel shot up from close to $2 in 2006 to nearly $8 in 2008, he placed his bet.

DENNIS BOGAARDS: We decided to switch over from 50-50 corn-soy bean rotation to about 65 percent corn. And the profitability at that time made the corn production look a lot better.

Side effects alarm scientists

HEIDI CULLEN: And not just for Bogaards. As more ethanol plants sprung up in Iowa, farmers increasingly embraced ethanol.

In 2008, about one-third of all corn produced in the U.S. was turned into ethanol. And what began as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and even the playing field for farmers has left some scientists troubled by what they see as a ripple of unintended consequences.

One concerns taking land out of what is known as the Conservation Reserve Program, a government program that pays farmers to keep their land out of production for environmental protection. When this land is planted with corn, all of the carbon that's stored in these prairie grasses and in these trees is released back into the atmosphere.

RICHARD LEOPOLD, director, Iowa Department of Natural Resources: Right now, we're seeing a lot of pressure on our land base to put as much into production as possible.

HEIDI CULLEN: Richard Leopold is director of Iowa's Department of Natural Resources in Des Moines.

This is switchgrass right here?

RICHARD LEOPOLD: That's switchgrass.

HEIDI CULLEN: He's concerned by how rapidly land set aside in the government's Conservation Reserve Program is being turned into cropland, and not just because of carbon dioxide emissions following prairie clearing.

RICHARD LEOPOLD: As far as the Conservation Reserve Program, it's not been a good year.

HEIDI CULLEN: Leopold acknowledges the short-term economic benefits of taking land out of the conservation reserve but is worried about the long-term consequences.

RICHARD LEOPOLD: We have some of the most productive soil on the planet, and it makes sense to farm it, but yet there are other benefits that we're trying to maintain. When a lot of this land goes back into production, we have decreasing water quality that doesn't just affect us. It affects the states all the way down the river to the Gulf of Mexico.

Other countries adversely affected

HEIDI CULLEN: Scientists studying climate change are equally concerned with how increased ethanol production in Iowa may be affecting land use in other parts of the world. They say the switch from soy to corn in Iowa has contributed to the rise in the global price of soybeans; that has led farmers around the world to plant additional acres of soybeans and profit from higher prices, possibly cutting down trees to do so, and thereby emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

These satellite images show the rapid rate of deforestation in Brazil from 2000 to 2007. Global deforestation accounts for about 20 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions and is directly tied to climate change.

Although the price of soybeans is now dropping, some scientists believe that the damage may have already been done. But some Iowans say it's not that simple.

DAVID MILLER, Iowa Farm Bureau: Burdening domestic fuel policy with decisions that are made of local land use by people outside of our policy realm troubles me.

HEIDI CULLEN: David Miller is director of research and commodity services for the Iowa Farm Bureau in West Des Moines. He thinks academic researchers studying global land-use patterns are not only making a tenuous leap from Iowa to elsewhere, but are also undermining U.S. farm policy and the commitment to biofuels.

DAVID MILLER: They want to use the factors that came out of that study and put them into regulations and say, "These coefficients are, in fact, the ones that ought to be used to determine the greenness, if you will, of U.S. biofuels."

HEIDI CULLEN: In other words, he believes what happens in Iowa should stay in Iowa.

DAVID MILLER: Exactly how much control do we have over what Brazil, a sovereign nation, is doing with their tropical land use? We have no control. So why should our biofuels policy be subject to things over which we have no control?

Ethanol 'has some serious flaws'

HEIDI CULLEN: But as President Obama continues to pledge his support for biofuels, there's also the big question of how well corn ethanol stacks up against gasoline in terms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

David Tilman, a professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota, along with a team of researchers, decided to put ethanol to the test.

DAVID TILMAN, University of Minnesota: I think it was started with the best of intentions, but the problem with corn ethanol is that it turns out it takes a lot of energy just to grow corn, which we hadn't thought about. The fertilizer, the pesticides, all those things require energy.

HEIDI CULLEN: You start with what you think is 10 gallons of renewable energy, but when you account for the eight gallons of fossil fuel used to grow, harvest, and convert the crop to ethanol, you end up with only two gallons of green renewable energy.

Still, that is an improvement over gasoline from the standpoint of both energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

DAVID TILMAN: Corn ethanol was our first attempt at a biofuel. And once it was given serious scholarship, serious analysis, we realized it has some major flaws.

HEIDI CULLEN: Like deforestation and loss of conservation land that, from a climate perspective, make corn ethanol worse than gasoline, something that even Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin appears to acknowledge.

SEN. TOM HARKIN, D-Iowa: Keep in mind, ethanol doesn't necessarily all have to come from corn. In the last farm bill, I put a lot of effort into supporting cellulose ethanol, and I think that's what you're going to see in the future.

Alternatives to standard ethanol

HEIDI CULLEN: Cellulosic ethanol is made from the part of the crop that we don't harvest, with corn, the corn stalks, the stems, the leaves. Also mandated by the renewable fuel standard, cellulosic ethanol could be the future of farming, because it requires significantly less fossil fuel to make the biofuel.

Harkin, a five-term senator who receives political contributions from companies and farmers interested in ethanol, still favors aggressive ethanol production, but now especially of the next-generation variety.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: You're going to see a lot of marginal land that's not suitable for row crop production, because it's hilly, or it's not very productive for corn or soybeans, things like that, but it can be very productive for grasses, like miscanthus, or switchgrass, and you can use that to make the cellulose ethanol.

HEIDI CULLEN: And using such land for growing fuel can help with the carbon dioxide problem, for in turning these kinds of plant materials into ethanol, you eliminate the need to use land suitable for food, feed for animals, and fiber for paper.

POET, in Emmetsburg, Iowa, is poised to be one of the nation's first cellulosic biofuel plants using corn cobs, but it remains to be seen whether cellulosic fuels will live up to all the hype, let alone be price competitive at a time of economic crisis, uncertain oil prices, and an ethanol boom that may have already peaked.

Still, for some Iowa farmers, corn ethanol has been a win-win opportunity.

DENNIS BOGAARDS: We've seen our yields raise quite a bit in the last several years. And we needed a place for this extra corn to be going, and ethanol has filled that for us. I'm sure there are some negatives, but I guess I'm not thinking of them right now.

HEIDI CULLEN: But scientists are. As they seek to better understand the interconnections between agriculture, the economy, and the climate, farmers across Iowa are working hard on new ways to feed and fuel the country. They're also hoping to preserve their way of life and their famously fertile land.