Ethanol Interests Blast AP Report

Ethanol groups say Associated Press reporters twisted the truth in a national news report

Published on: Nov 13, 2013

Updated at 12:25 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, Nov. 13

Ethanol and ag groups Tuesday continued efforts to curb the impact of claims Associated Press reporters put forth in an investigative report regarding corn ethanol's environmental footprint.

The report, authored by AP reporters Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo, largely questioned the Obama administration's ethanol policies and impacts of ethanol production on conservation efforts, water quality and land use.

"The hills of southern Iowa bear the scars of America's push for green energy: The brown gashes where rain has washed away the soil. The polluted streams that dump fertilizer into the water supply," the report begins, going on later to say, "It wasn't supposed to be this way."

Ethanol groups say Associated Press reporters twisted the truth in a national news report
Ethanol groups say Associated Press reporters twisted the truth in a national news report

Quoting representatives from the ethanol groups, the Environmental Working Group, the Environmental Protection Agency and former Obama officials, the reporters say that more than five million acres of land set aside for conservation have now disappeared, and landowners have "plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil."

The report says another source, Leroy Perkins, who lives near the Iowa town of Corydon, is now faced with a choice – "keep the land as it is or, like many of his neighbors, plow it down and plant corn or soybeans, the major sources of biofuel in the United States."

Going on to discuss water quality, corn prices and land values with an overarching ethanol theme, the report concludes that, "what was once billed as an environmental boon has morphed into a government program to help rural America survive."

Ethanol's retort

Ethanol groups, largely displeased with the report, unleashed "fact check" efforts beginning last week, when AP issued an advisory that the report would be published. Those efforts continued into Monday with a press conference supported by the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. Tuesday, IRFA, the Renewable Fuels Association, Growth Energy, National Corn Growers and National Farmers Union each issued rebuttals to the story while its co-author Apuzzo entertained questions on the web-based discussion board Reddit.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack also questioned the merits of the report in a round table discussion with the Des Moines Register's editorial board before the report's formal release, noting, "there are a number of inaccuracies and errors in that article."

"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," a Growth Energy statement said, calling the report a "hatchet job on ethanol."

NCGA President Martin Barbre added in a statement that the story appeared to be based on a "misunderstanding of modern agriculture generally and the Conservation Reserve Program specifically."

Barbre noted that the title of the story – " The secret, dirty cost of Obama's green power push" – suggests that there are secrets in how land is used.

"There are no secrets in how land is used, as (AP's) 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," Barbre said.

Industry comments also questioned the AP's failure to consider the use of ethanol production by-products, such as dried distillers grain, for livestock feed. And, IRFA said, sources in the story were misled to believe that the story was to focus on watershed issues and absentee landowners.

IFRA's Executive Director Monte Shaw also questioned small story details, like a reference the report authors made to postcards with pictures of cows on rolling pasture at the Corydon pharmacy.

"I’d also love for the AP to produce a postcard of ‘rolling cow pastures shown in postcards sold at a Corydon pharmacy.’  We went to the Corydon pharmacy and … found no postcards that featured ‘rolling cow pastures’ depicted so emotionally in the AP story," Shaw said. "Based on all the other fallacies in the story, I’m left to wonder if the reporters just made it up."

AP issues its own comment

Following the formal release of the report, AP on Tuesday issued a second story regarding the ethanol industry's comments, and Wednesday provided a photo of postcards found in the Corydon Pharmacy to rebut Shaw's accusation.

Ethanol Interests Blast AP Report

Postcards AP says were found at the Corydon Pharmacy. (AP Photo)

Tuesday's follow-up story quoted AP vice president and senior managing editor, Mike Oreskes, who said the report itself was a result of '"months of work and review of documents, and interviews of experts and people on all sides of the public policy debate about this energy resource,"' and, '"We stand behind our reporting and welcome further insights and discussion."'

The story also pointed out that the "economic stakes for the industry are significant" as Congress works on legislation to eliminate the renewable fuel standard – a mandate that dictates a certain amount of ethanol must be blended into the fuel supply.

Meanwhile, EPA is expected to hand down a decision on 2014 RFS volumes as early as this week as the discussion about the industry's future remains heated.