Demand For Corn Ethanol Is Swallowing North Dakota's Grasslands
Ethanol is one of the most important industries in the Midwest, one that's about to change. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new targets for the Renewable Fuel Standard, which dictates the amount of ethanol the oil industry has to blend into gasoline.
The RFS has three main goals: prop up rural economies, reduce dependence on foreign oil and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation sector.
Arguably, the standard has been most successful at meeting that first goal. Stutsman County, North Dakota, is a great place to understand why.
Central North Dakota didn't really used to be corn country. It's too rocky, hilly and dry for the most part. There are small ponds all-around that are difficult to drive farm equipment around. Farmers here never really planted much corn until eight years ago, when Congress passed the RFS, creating an instant market for corn to be made into ethanol.
Between 2007 and 2013, the price of corn almost doubled. During that time, the amount of corn planted in Stutsman County increased by over 50 percent. For people like Denny Ova, a longtime North Dakotan farmer and rancher, it was great news.
"[There's a] lot of buildings going up, a lot of new equipment sitting out there," Ova said. "People are happy."
The ethanol industry estimates it contributes $640 million to North Dakota's economy, and billions more across the Midwest. Tom Lilja, head of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, said a lot of that is a direct benefit to farmers, who can receive more money for their corn when they sell it to ethanol plants.
"A farmer in the past would go to the elevator and take the price," Lilja said. "Well now, he can look at an ethanol plant bid. And he can make these guys compete for their price."
Besides acting as a stimulus to rural America, the RFS was also meant to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Back when it was crafted, in the mid-2000s, the U.S. was at war with Iraq and importing more oil than ever. Corn was cheap and plentiful, so why not refine some of that into ethanol right here in the United States?
Ethanol did reduce dependence on foreign oil, said Bruce Babcock of Iowa State University, but something else worked even more — hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
"It's hard to separate the effects of RFS on reducing imports [from the shale oil boom]," Babcock said. "High crude oil prices have dramatically incentivized domestic production."
Whether the RFS achieved its last goal, to be a less carbon-intensive fuel than gasoline, is even harder to parse out.
High corn prices meant many farmers took grassland out of federal conservation reserve programs, which pay farmers not to plow. Denny Ova wanted to keep his grass, but it didn't make business sense.
"If you're only getting $50 an acre out of CRP, but you could rent it to the neighbor for $80, you're going to do that," Ova said.
Between 2008 and 2012, almost 6 million acres of grassland around the country was plowed under, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study. Plowing up grassland releases carbon dioxide from the soil. Accounting for that, some researchers say corn ethanol is not as "green" of a fuel as initially thought.
Losing grasslands is also bad for wildlife. The Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge's 10,000 acres of prairie in Stutsman County, North Dakota are a haven for migrating birds looking for a place to rest or nest in the increasingly plowed-up landscape. Neil Shook, the refuge manager, said the area looks completely different from what it did five years ago. Now, cultivated fields line the roads where before grasslands stretched for miles.
One Sunday morning a few years ago, Shook was out for a drive when a neighbor flagged him down. The neighbor, an older man named Roger, said he had been offered $90 an acre to turn some of his grassland into cropland. Shook begged him not to.
"I said, 'How much do you want? I'll buy it myself,'" Shook said. "I hadn't even talked to my wife. And I'm like, 'I just can't take it anymore. What do you want? I'm going to buy it.'"
He took Roger out to the land in question to show him native flowers, grasses, and old tipi rings, evidence of earlier inhabitants. But then, later that summer, he saw smoke rising from the field.
"It got burned," Shook said quietly, visibly upset.
One way to make ethanol more environmentally friendly is to make it out of something besides corn. Indeed, corn ethanol was intended to be a bridge fuel to "cellulosic biofuels" made out of wood, grass, or other plant parts. But cellulosic ethanol has yet to fully take off. U.S. plants only produced just one-fifth of the cellulosic ethanol called for in the RFS in 2014.
This story was produced in conjunction with Harvest Public Media. Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.