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Report: Ethanol Production Eating Up CA Grasslands Near Refineries

Grasslands are being lost to crops for ethanol production, particularly near ethanol plants, according to a new study. (cl_convoy/morguefile)
Grasslands are being lost to crops for ethanol production, particularly near ethanol plants, according to a new study. (cl_convoy/morguefile)
March 23, 2017

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A new report shows the Renewable Fuel Standard has had some unintended consequences – leading to the loss of 7 million acres of grassland nationally within the past few years – mostly in and around ethanol refineries as demand grew for corn.

The study showed that in California alone, almost 50,000 acres of non-crop lands have been converted within a hundred miles of the state's nine ethanol plants.

One of the study authors, Ben Larson with the National Wildlife Federation, says the lion's share of the acreage was precious grasslands, which serve as habitat for many species, especially birds.

"The issue of habitat loss driven by biofuels policy needs to be at the center of the debate about reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard," he states.

The standard required that gasoline contain a certain percentage of biofuels, and it specified that the new crops could not be grown on recently converted land.

Nonetheless, Larson notes that the U.S. saw widespread loss of grasslands concentrated around the ethanol plants, a fact that could inform policymakers in the future.

Chris Wright, a landscape ecologist and complex systems analyst with the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, says people need to keep climate change goals in mind even as ethanol production moves away from corn and toward cellulosic ethanol made from grasses and other plants.

"As we move forward with cellulosic ethanol, I think it's going to be important to continue to monitor land use change to guarantee that the results of the policy reduces greenhouse-gas emissions," he states.

Studies have shown that compared with grasslands, corn crops take significantly more water and fertilizer, provide less habitat and absorb less carbon from the air.

Suzanne Potter/Scott Herron, Public News Service - CA