(MERRILL, IA) The ethanol industry is taking aim at a new investigation that claims corn is devastating the environment.
The pushback follows an investigation by the Associated Press published on Tuesday, and it comes as Washington debates whether to get rid of the corn-based portion of the government rules that require oil companies to blend ethanol into their gas.
It's a high-stakes fight that has big oil and big corn facing off.
If you ask someone in the ethanol industry, like the CEO of Plymouth Energy in Merrill, Iowa, what they think of the AP article -- the message is pretty straightforward.
"Everybody's entitled to an opinion and this article is more of an opinion as opposed to factual," said Eamonn Byrne, the CEO of Plymouth Energy.
The Renewable Fuels Association says it's got the facts to back up its claim that the AP article is full of "disproven myths, skewed data and outright fabrications."
One of the first claims is that five million acres of conservation land "vanished on Obama's watch." The land the AP is talking about is the "Conservation Reserve Program" -- and the acreage is capped by law.
In 2008, the farm bill lowered the cap by seven million acres. Barack Obama wasn't president yet. It was signed by George W. Bush.
The AP pointed to an increase in corn production at the same time, but John Whitaker, the Iowa Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency says the increase in corn production didn't come from the decrease in conservation land or "pristine prairies" as the AP claimed. It came from farmers switching crops.
"Someone has taken very finite numbers and not looked at the whole picture. If you look at the whole picture, corn acreage is up but far more at the expense of other crops," he said.
Crops including wheat, soybeans and rice.
The AP also claimed between 2005 and 2010, the ethanol industry increased nitrogen by nearly 1 billion pounds, but it doesn't reveal how much nitrogen was used in total.
Byrne points out that each bushel of corn uses dramatically less nitrogen today than in the past.
"Nitrogen use for corn has dropped 43% since 1980," said Byrne.
The AP said 44% of last year's corn crop was used for fuel about twice the rate in 2006 but farmers point out the AP left out an important fact.
"The bushels of corn that are consumed by the ethanol industry are not for fuel alone. They are also for feed. The feed byproduct/co product that you get from ethanol production is not referenced in that article," said Bruce Rohwer, a corn Farmer in Paullina, Iowa.
A third of the ethanol corn gets turned into feed or distiller's grain, so feed is still the top use of corn in the country just like it's always been.
So what's behind the article? And why did the AP publish it now?
Byrne thinks it all comes down to the Renewable Fuel Standard or "RFS" -- it's what requires ethanol be blended into the nation's gasoline. He says "big oil" is scared as cars get more efficient.
"The demand for gas usage overall has decreased, which is a good thing, right? There's not as much emissions coming out of tailpipes and basically there issue was as the RFS increased over time, they were also hoping the demand for gas would increase. So what you have is they've kind of crossed over a bit now," he said. "We've eaten more into their market share."
One last note on this story - even the Iowa farmer who was featured in the AP story, deciding whether to turn his conservation land into farmland, says the reporters misled him.
Leroy Perkins added today, "Not once was I led to believe they were going to do a wham-bang on ethanol and so as I read this, I'm wondering, I'm looking at it saying, where are the oil companies in this?"