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  • December 1st, 2013

Fill ‘Er Up!

By Joel M. Vance

It was a cloudless, moonless night over southern Oklahoma and the sky glittered with an immensity of stars.  It was easy to believe in eternity and we all were quiet, sprawled on our shelter halves and thin Army blankets because it was both too hot to sleep in a tent, but also because we couldn’t have seen what the Comanches had seen when it had been their turn to sleep under the stars.

This was the native prairie, unplowed and unmolested except for wet-eared ROTC cadets on a campout at Fort Sill sponsored by the federal government.  We had spent the day shooting big guns at things we couldn’t see (and never hit) and were spending  the night listening to prairie wind sough in grasses that reached deep into the ground and far to the horizon.

That was then but now the Great American Desert, as the pioneers called the third of the country that was native grassland, is under constant attack.  The noise of oil and gas exploration equipment competes with the noise of massive tractors ripping up yet more thousands of acres of land to plant row crops.  Most of the intrusions on the native prairie involve energy production in one way or another.  Lost in the uproar is the eerie sound of booming prairie chickens and other grassland grouse.

Blame it on misguided environmental concern.  We bemoan the country’s dependence on oil, but aren’t willing to slow down or buy miserly automobiles so we look for alternatives (ignoring the fact that the United States produces more oil than it imports).  Comes the ethanol industry touting the environmentally-friendly nature of alcohol, brewed from corn.  No noxious emissions that contribute to global warming and threaten polar bears.  How can it be bad?

Since the advent of ethanol, more than one million acres of native grassland has felt the bite of the plow for the first time in history.  Once plowed it would take generations, if ever, for that land to regenerate to the tall, mid and short grasses that once lived there.  Meanwhile, the farmers who convert the land to corn for ethanol, in the eight states watered by the vast underground Ogallala aquifer, are draining that huge lake to irrigate corn and estimates are it would take a century to regenerate it, even if the thirsty suckfest stopped.  Concurrently the proposed Keystone pipeline would cut directly across the nation’s midsection, destroying native prairie, disrupting prairie grouse habitat, be unsightly—all so a Canadian-owned Big Oil corporation can ship environmentally awful tar sands oil to New Orleans for export to other countries.   We’re now producing two thirds of our oil demand but the much of the increase comes from “fracking,” a process of giving the subsurface a chemical enema—causing what amounts to a mini-earthquake—to loosen the oil trapped there.  Predictably that has a myriad of potential and actual environmental dangers, ranging from well contamination to outright health concerns.  So focused on oil independence is the nation that the prospect of environmental Armageddon from fracking is pretty much ignored, as is the environmental loss from converting native prairie to cornfields.

Tom Vilsack, the Department of Agriculture director, an Iowan, defends the conversion of prairie land and claims no land has been lost to conversion; that the increase in corn production is because of better farming that increases yields on existing cropland.   As anyone who has traveled Iowa highways in summer heat knows, the air there is redolent with the aroma of hog manure and so is Vilsack’s claim.  Between 2007-2010 some 28 million Conservation Reserve Program acres expired—2007 alone saw 16 million acres expire and only 13 million acres renew.  CRP offered payment for 10 or 15 years to retire vulnerable land from crops and it was a godsend for conservation and for indigenous wildlife.  But the contracts began to expire at the same time corn prices skyrocketed (with ethanol demand fueling the jump).   Here’s the total acreage of expirations in several of the top upland bird hunting states for 2013 alone: Vilsack’s Iowa 183,399; Illinois 186,569; Missouri 183,688; Nebraska 96,026; North Dakota 255,079; South Dakota 105,805; Texas 362,226; Washington 253,842 and for the United  States 3,306,213.  While some is recouped through re-signs, much isn’t and that lost CRP acreage will revert to row crops.  And the contracts continue to run out.In one month alone, September and October of 2012, CRP lost 2.5 million acres.

Some of that land lost was in idled acres that once had been cropland, but some was native prairie which had been retired to CRP years earlier to protect it from the plow and all was wildlife and environmentally friendly .  Native prairie ranges from the tallgrass of the eastern Midwest states to shortgrass in the Western states.  Illinois calls itself the Prairie State which is a joke since virtually every acre of tallgrass has vanished.  Missouri has lost at least 98 percent of its tallgrass which once comprised a third of the state’s 42 million acres.  Iowa likewise is prairie-bereft.  A history of Missouri’s Audrain County told how a man on a horse could ride through its historic tallgrass and the horse would be totally swallowed by the looming big bluestem.  Today there is no tallgrass remaining in Audrain County; it’s all corn and soybeans.  That’s what ethanol does—it steals the nation’s prairie heritage to make us feel good (and theoretically make our pocketbooks feel good too).

Ethanol would not be the problem it has become if corn prices tumbled the way they did in 2008 when the economy tanked.  It would cost more to produce than it would realize in the market.  But corn now is gold and the lure of the market has farmers abandoning CRP and polishing their plows on formerly idled CRP land or on native prairie that never has been plowed.  Concurrently oil prices have dropped so that ethanol production now is economically profitable.  You can’t argue with a landowner wanting to make a profit from his land and it’s a rare landowner who will sacrifice some of that profit to preserve the historic value of the land—after all exploitation of natural resources is as old as the country.

Ethanol can be produced from anything with cellulose content, not just corn—you can make fuel for your car from the waste paper you could recycle.   We throw away an estimated 323 million tons of cellulose raw materials annually which go into landfills instead of your gas tank.  There’s at least some effort to distill alcohol from sawmill waste, prairie hay and other cellulosic sources.  Ethanol can even be made from cornstalks, the residue left from the grain harvest—but that would pretty much defeat the goal of preserving prairie instead of conversion to corn.  The Energy Independence and Security Act originally set goals of 100 million, 250 million and 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.  But, as of 2012 the production of cellulosic ethanol was estimated at 10.5 million far below its target.  Corn still rules the ethanol roost .

Oil companies predictably resent efforts to dilute their gasoline with ethanol.  They sell oil from established refineries and resist developing new production facilities.  The American Petroleum Institute, the main mouthpiece of Big Oil, is especially opposed to E85, the 85 percent ethanol fuel that some modern cars run on and that is considerably cheaper than unleaded gasoline.  While much of the opposition to ethanol is funded by Big Oil and contains dubious data, one study by the University of California at Davis under a $25 million grant from Chevron says the energy used to produce ethanol is about even with what it generates but that cleaner emissions would be offset by the loss of pasture and rainforest to corn-growing—which is exactly the point I’m trying to make.

No one source of energy will replace oil/gasoline and they all have drawbacks—as one commentator said, “There is no silver bullet—it’s buckshot.”  But in concert they have merit.  While wind, water and sun have environmental benefits and are essentially free energy sources, they all have huge startup costs and they are unsightly and often environmentally damaging (Missouri’s largest fish kills have been below dams; wind farms disrupt mating and habitat of already threatened prairie grouse, solar “farms” sprawl across many acres).  Nuclear energy has the dual problems of what to do with spent fuel and the threat of catastrophe (think Chernobyl, Three Mile Island or the more recent Japanese disaster).

The cost to produce ethanol from corn is far greater than it is to make it from other cellulosic sources.  So why not shift the emphasis to those lower cost sources rather than plowing up yet more ground for corn?  At present the target for ethanol produced from corn and from cellulosic sources is about even and in total about 10 percent of the nation’s total fuel use.  Some 11 million vehicles can use E85 but many gas stations don’t have a way to store or pump it.

Ethanol is rife with problems, but problems exist to be solved.  When World War Two began the nation was woefully unprepared, yet it leaped into a massive production mode almost overnight and turned out the implements of war with astonishing speed.   The enemy nations simply underestimated how fast and how much the United States could overcome its lethargy.

Now we lack that sense of urgency because we’re complacent—willing to drive big vehicles and buy expensive petroleum products because no one is threatening to take them away from us.  Maybe everyone should be forced to spend a summer night lying on a shelter half in the middle of the grasslands where there is no sound of pumping oil derricks to muffle the sound of the prairie wind.

Might change a few attitudes.



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