Ethanol Producers Fume Over Upcoming Wire Story

Corn crops have become a flashpoint of debate between biofuels makers and the AP, which says expanded demand has hurt the land and the environment.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Nov. 11, 2013, 10:21 a.m.

An Associated Press report published prematurely last week and quickly pulled back takes ethanol to task for its impact on conservation lands and the environment. The leaked story, which AP says will be republished Tuesday, pulled few punches concerning the biofuel that has increased demand for corn production. National Journal obtained a copy from a lobbyist. 

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitats, and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press  investigation found.

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades, and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished 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, contaminated rivers, and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.

The story wasn’t out for long, but it has caused a firestorm of backlash from biofuels makers and corn producers upset at how they are portrayed. “There’s probably more truth in this week’s National Enquirer than there is in the AP story,” said the Renewable Fuels Association’s Geoff Cooper on a Monday press call. Also featured on the call was Iowa farmer Leroy Perkins, a source in the AP report who said that he was deceived about the nature of the story and that his remarks were taken out of context.

“Cropland is not expanding in the United States — certainly not expanding because of the RFS,” Cooper said, referring to the federal renewable-fuel standard that mandates an increasing amount of biofuels each year to be blended with the nation’s gasoline supply. Cooper insisted that corn-fueled destruction of wetlands “just isn’t happening.”

The American Coalition for Ethanol chimed in as well. “At best, the AP article is lazy journalism, but at worst, it appears purposefully designed to damage the ethanol industry,” ACE Executive Vice President Brian Jennings said in a release. “There was an incredibly reckless disregard for the truth in the handiwork of this hit-piece.”

AP says the story was accidentally published early when it was sent to member publications. “This was just a misfire,” said Paul Colford, AP’s director of media relations, noting that several yet-to-be-released segments of the report will come out Tuesday as well. He denied allegations that the factual basis of the story is in question and speculation that accuracy concerns led to it being pulled. “This was very, very, very carefully reported,” Colford said, and the republished version will run with only a “fix or two, a rephrasing here or there.” He also took aim at Perkins, who he said “actually sat for hours of interviews with the AP, and he was certainly aware … of AP’s questions about ethanol.” Perkins even helped arrange a flyover for AP to get an eye-in-the-sky look, Colford said.

Meanwhile, The Hill notes that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, an Iowa native and ethanol advocate, would not say if the fuel is beneficial for the climate. “I don’t know whether I can make the environmental argument, or the economic argument,” Vilsack told the AP.

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