EDITORIAL: AP probe shows ethanol’s harmful effects on environment, economy

The mandated blending of corn-based ethanol with American fuels was supposed to be good for the environment. But as a report released Tuesday by The Associated Press shows, the only things made greener by the federal requirement were the bank accounts of the ethanol industry and farmers.

“As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies. … Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil,” The AP investigation found. “Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.”

The consequences of the ethanol mandate, which was approved in 2007 and took effect in 2010, are so negative that environmentalists and scientists now see corn-based ethanol as terrible environmental policy. But it’s also terrible economic policy. The AP report stated that the EPA’s long-term estimate for the cost of a bushel of corn under the mandate was $3.22, but in September 2010, just two months after the law took effect, the price was $4 a bushel, and it now sits at about $7 — more than double that original projection.

But if farmers are making money, it’s all good — at least if you believe former Iowa governor and current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who had two very telling quotes in the AP report. First, “We are committed to this industry because we understand its benefits. We understand it’s about farm income. It’s about stabilizing and maintaining farm income, which is at record levels.”

Isn’t it supposed to be about the environment and energy independence? Guess whose income isn’t at record levels? Everybody not tethered to government in this weak economy.

“I don’t know whether I can make the environmental argument, or the economic argument,” Mr. Vilsack added. “To me, it’s an opportunity argument.”

Yes, it is an opportunity — to pay far more for food and fuel than Americans should have to, and in many cases far more than we can afford.

Yet like every other government program, the ethanol mandate is impossible to shut down. We’re finding more oil in America every day, yet we still have to ruin perfectly good land while overfarming for a higher corn yield — all while subsidizing farmers to do it.

If the AP’s report doesn’t push Congress to at least curtail the ethanol mandate (as the EPA reportedly might try to do this week), or preferably kill it altogether, then nothing will. It’s time to make ethanol, biofuels and other forms of green energy compete in the energy sector on their own merits, without any subsidies or mandates. We can’t afford them.

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