However, 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,” US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told ethanol lobbyists recently.
However, the administration has never conducted studies to determine whether that is 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 453.5 billion kilograms. More recent data are not available from the US Department of Agriculture, but conservative projections suggest a similar 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 is worse, ethanol factories typically burn coal or gas, both of which release carbon dioxide.
Then there is 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 EPA’s senior policy counsel. “I don’t have a lot of personal enthusiasm for the program.”
There was plenty 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 would not be much incentive to plow untouched areas and destroy conservation land.
However, corn prices climbed to more than US$7 a bushel, about twice the administration’s long-term prediction. Suddenly, setting aside land for conservation was bad economics for many farmers.