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In Iowa, Questions Arise on Impact of Ethanol Production

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.

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  • 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.