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Ethanol production can increase global warming, study says

Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON - A University of Wisconsin-Madison study shows that the shift of more than 7 million acres into cropland led to massive releases of carbon emissions into the atmosphere after a 2007 federal law mandated ethanol in gasoline. 

In this 2013 file photo, an ethanol plant stands next to a cornfield near Nevada, Iowa.

The increased carbon emissions is equivalent to 20 million new cars driving down American roadways every year, according to the researchers' estimates in the study released Wednesday.  

The findings show big changes in land use across the Midwest, including Wisconsin, and other parts of the United States between 2008 and 2012. That coincided with a change in federal law that required blending ethanol from crops like corn and soybeans into gasoline.

The federal Energy Information Agency reported that 10% of 143 billion gallons of gasoline came from ethanol in 2016. 

Wisconsin ranked 9th in carbon dioxide releases during the period due to farming practices, the study showed. The authors said most of the conversion to farmland came from pastures, forests and some wetlands.

The study underscores the unintended consequences of a federal policy meant to reduce America's reliance on fossil fuels.

While adding ethanol means burning less fossil fuels, the study found that the benefits were lost as even greater amounts of carbon held in the soil were released into the atmosphere in newly cultivated farm fields.

The researchers used satellite images and other data to identify landscape changes over time and used computer modeling to estimated the carbon that had been stored in soil.

The results drew criticism from an industry group. The Renewable Fuels Association, based in Washington, D.C., said other university studies have shown the changes after the ethanol mandate is "grossly overstated."

UW's study examined climate impacts after grassland, forests and other types of land were plowed under after passage of the ethanol mandate, also known as the renewable fuel standard. 

Areas in red, orange and yellow show the largest increases in carbon emissions between 2008 and 2012 after non-agricultural land was converted into cropland. Carbon that is stored in the soil is released into the atmosphere after it is plowed.

The authors of the study were Seth A. Spawn and Tyler J. Lark, two graduate students in the Department of Geography, and the project's principal investigator, Holly K. Gibbs, an associate professor of geography 

Spawn and Lark released the findings during a conference sponsored by an environmental group, the National Wildlife Federation, in Fort Worth, Texas.

During a conference call, Collin O'Mara, president of the wildlife federation, said UW's work shows Congress must retool the law. One key problem, he said, is that authorities are not enforcing existing requirements that prevent the conversion of non-farmland into fields of corn and soybeans. 

 "This should be a wake-up call to all elected officials and the (Environmental Protection Agency) that they need to fix the RFS," O'Mara said, referring to the renewable fuels standard.

The ethanol mandate has been controversial, with critics saying it has led to higher food prices and has spurred pollution by uprooting idle land into crops that requires fertilizer and increased energy consumption for plowing.

Critics also say that the increase in domestic oil production in recent years has weakened the claim that farmers are helping to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

Many pro-ethanol groups say ethanol has been boon to farm income. Corn prices, for example, jumped several years after the mandate was instituted before falling over the past four years.

During the 2016 election, candidate Donald Trump said he supported the mandate, and this fall directed the EPA not to take  steps to cut the amount of ethanol in gasoline. 

Geoff Cooper, executive vice president of the Renewable Fuels Association, took issue with the methodology of the UW study of using satellite photographs over time to judge changes on the landscape.

Cooper also said the number of acres of corn production in the U.S. has fallen more than 3% between 2007 and 2017 while  production per acre increased by 16% since 2007.

"In other words, the additional corn needed to support expansion of the ethanol industry came from increased productivity on existing cropland — not from converting native grasslands into new cropland," Cooper said in a statement. 

However, in Wisconsin, figures that more land went into corn production beginning in 2008. Corn production rose 14% from 3.8 million acres to 4.35 million acres between 2008 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Production remained above 4 million acres and fell to 3.9 million acres this year, the Agriculture Department reported.