The biofuel industry is calling for the retraction of an Associated Press investigation that pins severe environmental damages on the expanded production of corn ethanol in the Midwest.
An investigative report by the AP published Tuesday said that five million acres of land set aside for conservation have vanished in the push to produce more corn ethanol.
Wetlands have been filled in and billions of pounds of fertilizer have seeped into groundwater and streams to accommodate more corn, the AP reports.
"They're raping the land," Bill Alley, a member of the board of supervisors in Wayne County, Iowa, said to the AP.
Following the accidental publication of the piece on Monday—the AP had originally planned on publishing it later this week or next week—the ethanol lobby pushed back on the reporting.
“At best, the AP article is lazy journalism, but at worst, it appears purposefully designed to damage the ethanol industry,” American Coalition for Ethanol Executive Vice President Brian Jennings said in a statement Monday. “There was an incredibly reckless disregard for the truth in the handiwork of this hit-piece.”
The ethanol lobby says farmers increased corn acreage in 2012 and 2013 in response to drought, not because of ethanol. It also said wetlands and protected land were not being destroyed, and ethanol production results in 34 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline.
The Renewable Fuels Association said the story “vilifies the ethanol industry and omits hordes of facts about its environmental impact.”
Once considered the future of renewable fuels, ethanol now faces sharp criticism from environmentalists, who argue corn ethanol displaces land that could be used for food. Meanwhile, fossil fuel interests say ethanol is economically inefficient.
The industry did not get much help from pro-ethanol Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“I don’t know whether I can make the environmental argument, or the economic argument,” Vilsack told the AP. “To me, it’s an opportunity argument.”
However, in an interview with the Des Moines Register, Vilsack echoed the renewable fuel industry’s criticisms of the AP story.
"There are a number of errors and inaccuracies in that article," Vilsack said. "It's inaccurate to suggest that because one program has declined, all of conservation has declined. It has not."
In addition to the bad press facing the ethanol industry, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce soon how many billions of gallons of ethanol it will require oil refiners to blend into fuel in 2014.
A draft version of the EPA plan leaked in October said the agency will lower the amount back to 2012 levels. If the EPA follows the draft, it would be a major loss for the renewable fuels industry.
Oil lobbyists and free market groups argue the mandate, called the Renewable Fuel Standard, distorts markets and increases corn and energy prices for consumers and livestock producers.
The renewable fuel lobby has been fighting to preserve the mandate in Congress for the past several years, arguing it reduces American reliance on foreign oil and drives innovation in the fuel industry.