CORYDON, Iowa — The hills of southern Iowa bear the scars of America’s push for green energy: Brown gashes where rain has washed away the soil. Polluted streams that dump fertilizer into the water supply.
Even a cemetery that disappeared like an apparition into a cornfield.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
With the Iowa political caucuses on the horizon in 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama made homegrown corn a centerpiece of his plan to slow global warming. When President George W. Bush signed a law that year requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline each year, Bush predicted it would make the country “stronger, cleaner and more secure.”
But the ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.
As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and contaminated water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.
Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — an area about six and a half times the size of Dane County — have been converted on Obama’s watch.
Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.
Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, polluted rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.
In Wisconsin, for instance, farmers planted 700,000 more acres of corn last year than they did the year before the ethanol mandate was passed.
Adams County led the way with a 62 percent increase in acres used for corn production from 2005 to 2012. Iowa (34.3 percent), Crawford (30.6 percent), Lafayette (29.5) and Richland (29.2) were among the area counties that saw the largest percentage increases in acres used for corn production during that period. Dane County had a 5.6 percent increase.
Just five counties in the state — Calumet, Green Lake, Outagamie, Racine and Waukesha — saw their cornfields shrink from 2005 to 2012.
The state saw its conservation land acreage decrease 40.6 percent — a total of more than 250,000 acres — from 2005 to 2012. Dane County lost 11,040 acres that had been used for conservation land, an area larger than lakes Mendota and Wingra combined and a 34.9 percent decrease.
The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative consequences.
All energy comes at a cost. The environmental consequences of drilling for oil and natural gas are well documented and severe. But in the president’s push to reduce greenhouse gases and curtail global warming, his administration has allowed so-called green energy to do not-so-green things.
In some cases, such as the decision to allow wind farms that sometimes kill eagles, the administration accepts environmental costs because they pale in comparison to the havoc global warming could ultimately cause.
In the case of ethanol, the administration believes it must encourage the development of next-generation biofuels that will someday be cleaner and greener than today’s.
“That is what you give up if you don’t recognize that renewable fuels have some place here,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said. “All renewable fuels are not corn ethanol.”
But next-generation biofuels haven’t been living up to expectations. And the government’s predictions on ethanol have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases.
That makes the hidden costs even more significant.
“They’re raping the land,” said Bill Alley, a Democratic member of the board of supervisors in Wayne County, Iowa, which now bears little resemblance to the rolling cow pastures shown in postcards sold at a Corydon town pharmacy.
The numbers behind the ethanol mandate have become so unworkable that, for the first time, the EPA is soon expected to reduce the amount of ethanol required to be added to the gasoline supply. An unusual coalition of big oil companies, environmental groups and food companies is pushing the government to go even further and reconsider the entire ethanol program.
But the Obama administration stands by the mandate and rarely acknowledges that green energy requires any trade-offs.
“There is no question air quality, water quality is benefiting from this industry,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told ethanol lobbyists recently.
But the administration has never conducted studies to determine whether that’s true.
Fertilizer, for instance, can make drinking water toxic. Children are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, which causes “blue baby” syndrome and can be deadly.
Between 2005 and 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than a billion pounds. More recent data isn’t available from the Agriculture Department, but conservative projections suggest another billion-pound increase since then.
In the Midwest, where corn is the dominant crop, some are sounding alarms.
The Des Moines Water Works has faced high nitrate levels for many years in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, which supply drinking water to 500,000 people. Typically, when pollution is too high in one river, workers draw from the other.
“This year, unfortunately the nitrate levels in both rivers were so high that it created an impossibility for us,” said Bill Stowe, the utility’s general manager.
For three months this summer, huge purifiers churned around the clock to meet demand for safe, clean water.
Obama’s support for ethanol dates to his time as a senator from Illinois, the nation’s second-largest corn producer.
“If we’re going to get serious about investing in our energy future, we must give our family farmers and local ethanol producers a fair shot at success,” Obama said in 2007.
From the beginning of his presidential administration, however, Obama’s environmental team saw corn ethanol as a dubious policy. Corn demands fertilizer, which is made using natural gas. What’s worse, ethanol factories typically burn coal or gas, both of which release carbon dioxide.
Then there’s the land conversion, the most controversial and difficult-to-predict outcome.
Digging up grassland releases greenhouse gases, so environmentalists are skeptical of anything that encourages planting more corn.
“I don’t remember anybody having great passion for this,” said Bob Sussman, who served on Obama’s transition team and recently retired as the Environmental Protection Agency’s senior policy counsel. “I don’t have a lot of personal enthusiasm for the program.”
There was plenty of enthusiasm at the White House and at the Department of Agriculture, where officials argued to the EPA that ethanol was cleaner than it thought. The EPA ultimately agreed.
The policy hinged on assumptions that corn prices would not go too high and farms would get more efficient. That way, there wouldn’t be much incentive to plow untouched areas and destroy conservation land.
But corn prices climbed to more than $7 a bushel, about twice the administration’s long-term prediction. Suddenly, setting aside land for conservation was bad economics for many farmers.
“I’m coming to the point where financially, it’s not feasible,” said Leroy Perkins, a farmer in Wayne County who set aside 91 acres years ago and let it grow into high grass.
With the government’s predictions so far off from reality, scientists say it’s hard to argue for ethanol as global warming policy.
“I’d have to think really hard to come up with a scenario where it’s a net positive,” said Silvia Secchi, a Southern Illinois University agriculture economist.
She paused, then added: “I’m stumped.”