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Vilsack, ethanol, farm groups criticize AP story on environmental impact of ethanol

An Associated Press story on the environmental impact of ethanol released today garnered an unusual amount of criticism from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and renewable fuels and farm groups.

A story datelined Corydon, Iowa, and headlined “The secret, dirty cost of Obama’s green power push” said that “the ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today. 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, an Associated Press investigation found.”

Vilsack told reporters today that the story was “unfortunate” with “lots of mistakes” and “half truths.”

He said USDA had tried to work with the AP on the story, but that the reporters had focused on the decline in the amount of land in the Conservation Reserve Program, which idles land, and ignored conservation programs for lands in production.

“The CRP is not the ‘be-all and end-all’ of conservation programs,” Vilsack said, noting that more land is enrolled in some type of conservation program than at any point in American history.

“It’s not fair to the industry not to take into consideration all the innovation in the industry,” the secretary said.

Growth Energy, the Renewable Fuels Association, the National Corn Growers Association and the National Farmers Union all issued specific criticisms of the story.

“This so-called ‘investigative report’ is nothing more than a one-sided piece with explicit misinformation used in attempt to discredit the renewable fuels industry, an industry that is reducing our dependence on foreign oil, creating good paying jobs at home that cannot be outsourced, driving growth and innovation in rural America, all while improving our environment and providing consumers a choice and savings at the pump,” said Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis.

“The single take away from this piece is that the authors need to get a fact-checker. Even the simplest of facts were misconstrued,” Buis continued. “The absence of rudimentary fact checking is truly astounding.”

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “The story blames biofuels for the reduced acres in the Conservation Reserve Program. What it neglects to mention is that Congress reduced CRP by roughly 7 million acres in the 2008 farm bill and is poised to be reduced by 7 to 8 million acres in the next farm bill.”

“In addition, climate change and new seed varieties are mostly responsible for the expansion of corn production, with warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons making it possible to plant corn in places like North Dakota and Canada. American-produced biofuels are a clear and environmentally-friendly alternative to oil. Today’s ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30 percent compared to gasoline.”

National Corn Growers Association President Martin Barbre said the problem went deeper than the CRP analysis.

“It is discouraging that the Associated Press appears to be following a political agenda which clearly targets our only renewable alternative to imported petroleum,” Barbre said.

“Even the headline is a colorful but inaccurate indictment — ‘The secret, dirty cost of Obama's green power push.’ Secret? There are no secrets in how land is used, as their own reporting shows. Acres are tracked, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture guarantees a high level of transparency. No, these watch words ‘secret’ and ‘dirty’ show clearly that the reporters were sensationalizing the issue to a high degree, which is conduct unbecoming a true journalist.”

The Renewable Fuels Association issued a fact sheet refuting certain statements in the story.