“I’m coming to the point where financially, it’s not feasible,” said Leroy Perkins, a farmer in Wayne County who set aside 37 hectares years ago and let it grow into high grass.
Losing millions of conservation hectares was bad. Plowing over untouched prairies was worse.
Using satellite data — the best tool available — The Associated Press identified at least 490,000 hectares of virgin land in Nebraska and the Dakotas that have been converted to corn and soybean fields since 2006.
“The last five years, we’ve become financially solvent,” said Robert Malsam, a farmer in Edmunds County, South Dakota, who like others in the Dakotas has plowed wild grassland to expand his corn crop.
The government could change the mandate or demand more safeguards. However, that would pick a fight with agricultural lobbyists and would put the administration on the side of oil companies, which despise the ethanol requirement.
Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol lobbying group, said there is no reason to change anything. Ethanol is still cleaner than oil, he said.
These days, when administration officials discuss ethanol, they often frame it as an economic program for the rural US, not an environmental policy.
When Obama gave a major speech in June on reducing greenhouse gas, biofuels received only a passing reference.
With the government’s predictions so far off from reality, scientists say it is 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,” Southern Illinois University agriculture economist Silvia Secchi said.
She paused, then added: “I’m stumped.”
Additional reporting by Jack Gillum in Washington and Chet Brokaw in Roscoe, South Dakota.