I spent some time Monday listening to a couple of bankers from North Dakota talk about the impacts of the Bakken shale oil development while I watched the emails flow about the Associated Press article declaring that the push for ethanol has led to disastrous outcomes.
I could write a piece about the Bakken development that would take the same approach with oil and natural gas development in North Dakota that the Associated Press did with ethanol in Iowa.
Virgin ground in North Dakota is being dozed, backhoed and drilled so we can release more fossil fuels into the air. As much as 35% of the Bakken natural gas is flaring into the sky, so much so the flaring looks like the lights of a major city from space. That flaring alone releases the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as adding one million cars to the road. One county in the middle of the Bakken boom has seen its landfill go from collecting 10 tons of trash a day to 900 tons a day. The annual fresh water demand of the Bakken field is 25,000 acre feet annually. Then there is the salt water -- and whatever else is in it -- that is then pumped back into the ground when the drilling is done. The semi-truck traffic alone takes a toll. One town of 200 people now sees an average of nearly 22,000 semi-trucks passing through every single day.
I could go on digging up the negative statistics on the Bakken development, but that's not my argument. The Associated Press reporters wrote their piece to effectively state that ethanol has no redeeming value. Reporters and editors who live in Washington get to tell those of us in the Midwest about how we screwed up the land they like to flyover. AP put out a press release to pump up all its members to make sure they use the stories.
"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,” said Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee. “The unintended consequnces (consequences) of green energy, when it comes to a program like ethanol, is truly one of those topics.”
The boastful attitude about the reporting fails to grasp what I sought to point out with the Bakken comparison: We have no perfect energy source. We don't solve energy problems, we only change them.
Ethanol, like any energy, fits that mold. Is soil erosion a problem in Iowa because of corn? Yes, too many farmers are leaving that ground bare and tilling largely because they want to use that iron. Do we have water quality problems? Yes, we do. Can these issues be fixed? Yes, they can.
The story states "What was once billed as an environmental boon has morphed into a government program to help rural America survive." Survive? How about contribute to a revitalization of rural America? What about farm income? Farm subsidies? Land values? How about jobs? AP didn't point out how states with high ethanol production were largely insulated from the recession. In 2009, when the U.S. unemployment rate peaked at 10%, the unemployment rate in Iowa was 6.4%.
AP laments the loss of Conservation Reserve Program lands to production.
"In the first year after the ethanol mandate, more than 2 million acres disappeared. Since Obama took office, 5 million more acres have vanished." If you just read the piece, you would be convinced that Iowa is plowing up all its CRP acreage. Since 2008, Iowa has gone from 1.8 million acres in CRP to 1.5 million.
Of that 5 million acres of CRP ground that came out of the program, 2.2 million of those acres came from just four states. Montana, Kansas, Texas and North Dakota make up the bulk of acreage that has shifted from CRP since the beginning of 2009.
Incidentally, CRP now is about 29 million acres. That's akin to the same amount of farm ground lost to urban sprawl ever since CRP was enacted. Vanished.
The ethanol-is-bad story also masterfully paints what AP sees as the flaws in accounting for greenhouse-gas reductions. AP gets into the weeds of greenhouse-emissions accounting to conclude ethanol has lower emissions than burning oil, but apparently not enough to make a difference. Ethanol also doesn't produce enough fuel to wean us off oil, but we make too much of the alcohol to feed the cattle.
The article ignores efforts in the industry to lower ethanol's carbon footprint even further. Some ethanol plants have big plans to sell more into California's low-carbon market, which has tighter standards than EPA.
The article does little to acknowledge we have barely scratched the surface of potential for biofuels. At least three cellulosic plants will come on-line in the next year.
The article points out nearly 5 billion bushels of corn goes to produce ethanol, but doesn't mention distilled grain from the fermentation to feed livestock. It's almost as if the reporters didn't grasp the concept.
The AP report did not touch upon any positive developments of biofuels. It didn't tell the story of a boutique fuel that now has captured 10% of the marketshare from petroleum at the pump. Is there any other renewable energy source out there with 10% marketshare nationally? Anything close?
Perhaps what is most annoying about the AP piece is that it goes nowhere for solutions. OK, geniuses. If you don't think ethanol is worth America's time, what energy should we be running vehicles on? Are we so willing to quit developing renewable energy and simply go back to just burning petroleum? I understand there is more oil coming out of North Dakota you can report on.
You know who is going to be thrilled to distribute the AP story to every member of Congress? The American Petroleum Institute.
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