Today nearly half of all the corn grown in Iowa goes into Ethanol production as a result of the Renewable Fuel Standard. Implemented over a decade ago, the RFS federally mandates a minimum number of gallons of ethanol to be blended into the U.S. fuel supply each year. For some years now ethanol has been billed as an environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline and as a way to wean us from our “addiction” to Middle-Eastern oil. We’ve been told that the practice of adding ethanol to gasoline will “oxygenate” the fuel thereby reducing air pollution. We’ve heard that ethanol will slow global warming.
It has long been considered political suicide to oppose the Ethanol mandate while campaigning in the Hawkeye State. But that is changing. Candidates like Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina have been resolute in their opposition to the ethanol mandate by calling it a corporate welfare program, and reminding us of the harm it has caused nationwide. Now voters across party lines are expressing grave concerns for the impacts of the corn ethanol mandate – from the cars we drive, the food we purchase, and the land we cultivate. And these concerns are not unique to Iowa. The Ethanol Mandate touches lives all across the country. While many people living outside of the Midwest may not find a candidate’s position on ethanol subsidies to be compelling on its own, when we pull back and take a broader look at the issue, a very intriguing picture begins to emerge.
In 2008 while then Senator Barack Obama was campaigning as a “reformer seeking to reduce special interest groups” (precisely what the ethanol lobby is) he said that embracing the expanded production of ethanol “ultimately helps our national security, because right now we are sending billions of dollars to some of the most hostile nations on earth.” To be clear, sending billions of dollars – say 150 billion dollars – to places like Iran is ill-advised when considering our national security. Of course, Obama’s words sounded great to those of us living outside of the corn belt and while groups like The EPA and the Department of Agriculture seem well-intentioned and necessary, it is paramount to understand that the term ‘crony capitalism’ is derived from the unsavory alliances historically forged between these groups and big business. With that in mind, it may be of interest that 94% of Iowa’s corn is genetically engineered. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the name Monsanto and their legacy of producing toxic products. Our heavily subsidized ethanol refineries use such a massive amount of corn that the price for all grain has risen dramatically, resulting in noticeable inflation here and riots over food abroad.
We should acknowledge that, as a bureaucratic agency, the EPA is essentially a group of unelected lawmakers who are completely insulated from any accountability. Regulations like the ethanol mandate are enforced with the full measure of the law and thus, are shielded from bearing any responsibility for the resulting destructive farming practices, rising fuel costs, and greenhouse emissions. We’ve learned that ethanol mandates have led to the conversion of millions of acres of grasslands and wetlands into cornfields. These are lands there were once set aside for conservation. They are not at all suitable for intensive agriculture. American prairies are disappearing at a faster rate than during the Dust Bowl Era. Grasslands are also key breeding grounds for ducks and other wildlife. Corn is also one of the most profligate water-using crops grown. Under drought conditions, which many regions have experienced in recent years, groundwater levels are have fallen by more than six feet across America’s corn belt, which has been hard on beef herders and dairy farmers. The conversion of these lands has led to a rise in greenhouse emissions from 85 million to 236 million metric tons over the span of just three years. Billions of pounds of fertilizer and pesticides have been sprayed and as a result, local rivers have been contaminated. Yet while campaigning in Iowa Hillary Clinton, who supports fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, said that “we must ramp up the amount of ethanol being produced.”
But what about energy independence? It is easy to lose sight of the fact that It takes fossil fuels to run the tractors, to make the fertilizer, to build silos, to transport corn to the processing plant and to actually run the processing plant. And while the ethanol mandate has significantly boosted the overall production of ethanol, it has done very little to curb our “addiction to foreign oil”. In fact, the U.S. still imports nearly thirteen million barrels of oil per day. Ethanol cannot be moved in pipelines the way gas can because it degrades. It has to be transported by trucks and trains from the Midwest out to the coasts. Keep in mind that just this past November, President Obama rejected the Keystone Pipeline by saying, “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change and frankly, approving this project would have undercut that leadership.” However, the Environmental Working Group recently concluded that the “corn ethanol mandate has been worse for the climate than the projected emissions of the controversial Keystone Pipeline.” At the end of the day, if we turned all of America’s corn into ethanol, it would account for twelve percent of our gasoline demand. All of this results in a net energy balance of: zero.
Yet, the ethanol subsidies continue. Despite complaints from environmental groups, oil companies, and local livestock producers, last month the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) mandated that 18 billion gallons of corn ethanol be blended into the U.S. fuel supply. This mandate came roughly two weeks prior to the “historic” Paris Climate Accord, which “requires action in some form from every country, rich or poor” to reduce the amount of greenhouse emissions.
When environmental organizations, big oil companies, local farmers, and politicians are coming together on the same side, it might be time to listen. Unless, as in the case of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, you can’t hear them over the sound of your own voice as you boast about your alleged commitment to the environment.