As Prairies Get Plowed for Biofuels, Greens Demand EPA Act

(Bloomberg) -- More than a dozen environmental and conservation groups filed a petition Tuesday alleging that the EPA is illegally looking the other way as farmers plow over prairies and wetlands to grow corn needed to satisfy a U.S. biofuel mandate.

The Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and other organizations asked the Environmental Protection Agency to force biofuel producers to prove the crops they use come from lands cultivated before Dec. 19, 2007, a benchmark under U.S. law.

The petition acts as a warning shot, signaling that if the EPA doesn’t address the issue, the groups could take the agency to court over it. The move marks the escalation of a battle over the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, a law that compels refiners to use corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel. Once heralded as a cleaner, safer alternative to foreign oil, biofuels are now being questioned by environmentalists who dispute their green credentials.

“Millions of acres of previously uncultivated land have been converted to cropland” to satisfy the biofuel mandate “with far-reaching, deleterious environmental impacts,” the environmentalists say in their filing. “Our air, water, land and wildlife are all suffering as a result.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Congress expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard as part of broad energy legislation in 2007, environmentalists pushed for safeguards designed to prevent land conversion, including a requirement that biofuels accepted under the program only come from previously farmed tracts. But instead of verifying that biofuel comes from crops grown on eligible, already cultivated land, the EPA chose to assess agricultural land use in aggregate.

The activists say the EPA’s broad approach of only looking at national cropland totals obscures the real picture on the ground, because net acreage can remain the same nationwide if native grasses are plowed to grow corn for ethanol while existing farms are turned into subdivisions and shopping malls. The EPA approach also violates the Renewable Fuel Standard’s “clear and unambiguous restriction” on land conversion, while undermining the measure’s intended climate and environmental objectives, they argue.

The activists are demanding the EPA end its aggregate approach, write new regulations requiring biofuel producers to prove the crops they use come from lands that were already cleared or cultivated prior to 2007, and lower annual biofuel quotas.

The EPA itself concluded in a June report that actively managed cropland has increased by 4 million to 7.8 million acres since 2007, with crop production for biofuels driving much of the increase. Corn acreage has also gone up by approximately 10 million acres during the same time frame, the EPA report said.

Fertilizer runoff associated with growing crops for biofuel production may contribute to a dead zone and harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico that jeopardize sturgeon, sea turtles and other marine life, the EPA said. Conservationists say that when prairies are broken up by farmland that is inhospitable to wildlife, it isolates small communities of butterflies, whooping cranes and other animals that may be unwilling to leave their native habitat. And environmentalists argue that when land is converted to grow crops, the existing vegetation is destroyed and the soil is tilled, releasing once-stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Biofuel advocates say the alternative -- more oil-based gasoline -- is worse. They argue that additional corn for ethanol production came from increased yields on existing cropland. And they dispute claims that ethanol production is driving habitat loss, arguing that some of those assertions lean on studies with questionable methodologies.

“There is no credible evidence whatsoever to support the notion that native prairie and grassland have been plowed under to make room for more corn,” said Renewable Fuels Association President Geoff Cooper. “Cropland in the United States continues to shrink, while grassland and forestland is expanding,” Cooper said, noting that farmers planted 5 percent fewer acres of corn this year than in 2007.

Brooke Coleman, director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, said the environmental activists petitioning the EPA are making “highly misleading” claims. “Their proposals would give destructive petroleum-based fuels a monopoly on our future,” Coleman said.

Today, most of the U.S. biofuel mandate is fulfilled by conventional, corn-based ethanol. Although Congress envisioned the law would help spur alternatives using switchgrass, algae and other non-edible plant materials, those next-generation biofuels have been slow to penetrate the market.

“Corn ethanol was always supposed to be a bridge to a truly sustainable biofuel future,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “We’re stuck on the bridge because we’ve created an incumbent industry that is so heavily subsidized at this point that there is no incentive for investors to invest in the more-risky next-generation alternatives.”

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