The Obama administration, a strong defender of biofuels, is soon expected to slightly ease the law's requirements. Overnight, such changes would eliminate a huge source of the demand for ethanol, reduce profits for farmers and ethanol producers and likely lower the price of corn.
The AP's investigation is based on government data, interviews and observations. It highlights what many researchers have published in peer-reviewed journals and is consistent with reports to Congress by the Environmental Protection Agency about ethanol's environment toll.
"The AP's reporting on this important topic is a result of months of work and review of documents, and interviews of experts and people on all sides of the public policy debate about this energy resource," said Mike Oreskes, AP's vice president and senior managing editor. "We stand behind our reporting and welcome further insights and discussion."
Specifically, the ethanol industry disputed AP's findings that as farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land and destroyed habitat. The industry said the primary driver for such losses was Congress lowering the number acres allowed in conservation, not ethanol. Farm bills did indeed lower allowable conservation acres in recent history.
It also cited a Dutch study, which was not peer-reviewed and found that urban sprawl internationally was responsible for greater loss of grassland than biofuels.
In addition to citing the Agriculture Department's figures of more than 5 million acres of conservation land transformed under the Obama administration from grass field back into farmland, the AP analyzed U.S. government crop data collected by satellite.
The AP identified tracts of land that were cornfields in 2012 and had been grassland in 2006. The AP then excluded land lost from the Conservation Reserve Program to prevent double counting. The AP vetted this methodology with one independent scientist at South Dakota State University, who has published peer-reviewed research on land conversion using the same satellite data.