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MADISON, Wis. -- A new report examines how the expansion of cropland in Wisconsin and other states as the result of the ethanol mandate has contributed to the surge in climate change pollution.
The mandate, enacted in 2007, requires certain amounts of plant-derived fuels to be blended into gasoline. Research from the University of Wisconsin found that, as a result, more than 7 million acres of habitat have been plowed under for corn and soy across the country.
In Wisconsin, study co-author Tyler Lark said more than 1.2 million metric tons of carbon were released between 2008 and 2012 because of that land conversion. "It's a mixture in Wisconsin, I think, of both some grasslands, pasture, as well as some forest," Lark said. "And the forest is likely to be locations that have been cleared and no longer being used, say, for timber production or paper pulp, and then switched into agriculture - especially when crop prices were high."
The report ranked Wisconsin ninth nationally for the amount of emissions released by expanding cropland. The national impact was the release of 115 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere - which is equivalent to 20 million additional cars on the road per year. When initially passed in 2005, the ethanol mandate was promoted as a way to cut energy imports, reduce pollution and lower fuel costs. Its opponents say the policy could be reformed to advance clean fuels and protect public health, without polluting water or destroying habitat.
President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, Collin O'Mara, said the findings are a wake-up call to national leaders, alerting them to the urgency of confronting climate change for the sake of the country's health, environment, wildlife and economy. "There are a growing number of Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress that are saying, 'Now is the time to fix the ethanol mandate,'" O'Mara said. "And frankly, we've seen some bare-knuckle politics in the U.S. Senate trying to find ways to improve the program right now that is failing in so many ways."
After announcing plans to scale back the ethanol mandate, the Environmental Protection Agency recently did an about-face, deciding instead to set the 2018 standard at or above current levels.