If you need a bit of irony consider this doozy. A 73-page petition filed by a coalition of environmental and conservation groups is now challenging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to change how it accounts for land-use changes under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).
The coalition which includes the likes of the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists, is asking EPA to “amend its regulations regarding what land can permissibly be used to produce biomass” under the Energy Independence and Security Act’s RFS.
According to an industry trade publication, Ethanol Magazine, the petition is seeking specific modifications to RFS regulations.
“First, the petition asks the agency to eliminate aggregate compliance as a permissible approach to satisfying EISA’s land-use restrictions. Rather, the groups want biofuel producers to demonstrate individual compliance with EISA’s land-use restrictions by showing that each source of crop-based biomass used to meet the RFS is grown on compliant land, defined as land that was cleared or cultivated prior to 2007 and that was actively managed or fallow and non-forested in 2007.
“Secondly, the petition asks EPA to require proof that only EISA-compliant land is used to grow crops displaced by renewable biomass production,” according to the magazine.
According to the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the acreage data is very clear: farmers are planting fewer acres to corn today than before RFS was expanded. “And it’s not just corn acres that have fallen,” said NCGA President Lynn Chrisp. “The area planted to principal crops is shrinking nationwide. The reality of what is happening on today’s farms is not accurately portrayed in the petition.”
According to NCGA farmers planted fewer acres to corn in 2018 (89.1 million) than they did when the RFS was expanded in 2007 (93.5 million). During that same time, ethanol production expanded from 6.5 billion gallons to 15.8 billion gallons. Overall, the area planted to principal crops in the U.S. has fallen from 328.6 million acres in 2000 to 322 million acres in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
“How is it possible that farmers can use less land today to produce more corn than they did 10 years ago? The answer is productivity,” said Chrisp. “The average corn yield has increased by more than 25 bushels per acre since 2007, resulting in an abundant corn supply that meets food, feed and fuel needs with significant bushels to spare.”
While farmers today produce more corn on fewer acres, they are also doing so with fewer resources and improved farming practices. Farmers have doubled yields while the cutting use of primary nutrients per bushel in half between 1980 and 2014, according to NCGA.
“Renewable fuels burn cleaner than the fossil fuels they replace, reducing harmful pollutant emissions that impact human health. Ethanol blending in fuel last year reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the same amount as taking more than 11 million vehicles off the road for a year,” said Chrisp. “Farmers are proud of our progress toward being more productive with fewer resources, and we stand behind ethanol’s environmental benefits.
Growth Energy is also speaking out against the petition, suggesting the environmental coalition didn’t do their more homework contained in the petition.
“The notion that biofuels could be blamed for a change in land use—without any hard data—is wildly misleading,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy. “In fact, data from the USDA shows that America’s farmers are producing more food and energy than ever before, and they are doing it on less cropland than was under cultivation in the 1930s. You cannot attribute a rise in land-use to biofuels when land-use isn’t rising.”
The American Coalition for Ethanol was a little more direct in their response to the petition, suggesting the environmental groups apparently can’t accept the realities of modern-day agriculture’s advancements in technology and genetics.
“If these groups would bother to come down from their ivory towers and visit rural America they would see first-hand how farmers are not converting native pasture or forests to produce more corn to make ethanol,” said Brian Jennings, CEO of ACE. “Instead, farmers have discovered how to increase corn production by improving the health of the soil on their existing cropland.”