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US Farms and Agricultural Production near Drilling

Health vs. Power – Risking America’s Food for Energy

Over 50% of land in the United States is dedicated to agriculture. Oil and gas development, particularly hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” is taking place near many of these farms.

Farms feed us, and unfortunately they are not protected from the impacts of fracking. Even if drilling can be done responsibly, accidents happen. In Colorado, for example, two spills occur on average per day, 15% of which result in water contamination. [1] Risking our food supply is not only a risk to our health – it’s a risk to national security.

Food Independence

Rocky Mountain Apple Orchard by Celia Roberts

Rocky Mountain apple orchard. Photo by Celia Roberts

Domestic oil and gas production has been promoted by the industry as a means to provide the U.S. with energy independence. The argument goes something like this: “We need to be a net exporter of energy so as to reduce our reliance on foreign countries for these resources, especially countries in the Middle East.” This ignores the point that for energy security we might want to keep rather than export fossil fuels.

However, energy independence and food independence are inextricably linked.

Considering that the basic human needs are clean water, food, shelter, and safety — along with energy — we need to think about self-reliance; we can’t be dependent on foreign countries for our food. The U.S. is currently a net exporter of agricultural products, and California produces 50% of the food consumed in the U.S. But what would happen if our foodsheds became contaminated?

Drilling Proximity – Why the concern?

Front Range, Colorado Working Landscape At Risk of Unconventional Oil & Gas Drilling by Rita Clagget

Front Range, Colorado working landscape at risk of unconventional oil & gas drilling. Photo by Rita Clagget

Over 58% of US agricultural market value and 74% of US farms – both conventional and organic – operate within shale basins, active shale plays, and the primary frac sand geologies.

Why is this so important? Why be concerned? Here are just a few reasons:

  1. People can be exposed to the compounds involved with oil and gas extraction through spills, emissions, and other processes. The top five health impacts associated with these chemicals are: respiratory, nervous system, birth defects, and reproductive problems, blood disorders, and cancer.[2]
  2. Rural gas gathering pipelines are unregulated; operators have no obligation to publicly report about incremental failures along the pipeline that may contaminate soil and water as long as they don’t require evacuations.[3]
  3. Oil and gas operators are exempt from certain provisions of several environmental laws designed to protect public health and safety, including the Safe Water Drinking Act, The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. These exemptions, in a way, permit oil and gas operators to contaminate water supplies with chemicals from their operations, in particular hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced wastewater.[4]
  4. The gold standard of clean, chemical-free food is the USDA National Organic Program Standards, as governed by the Organic Foods Production Act. Unfortunately, organic certification does not require testing for oil and gas chemicals in water being used in organic production. The organic standard is satisfied as long as state, water, and food safety agencies deem the water safe. To our knowledge these agencies do not test for oil and gas chemicals.[5]
  5. Based on available data spills occur regularly. Recent research has identified that the mixture of chemicals from fracking fluid and produced wastewater interact in a way that can lead to soil accumulation of these chemicals. Potentially, then, the chemicals may be absorbed by plants.[6] Fifteen chemicals often used in fracking have been identified as toxic, persistent and fast-traveling.[7] Some farms – such as those in Southern California – are being irrigated with produced water from oil and gas operations. Additionally, every single farm in the San Jaoquin Valley is within eight miles of oil and gas operations.[8]
  6. There is significant Competition for water between natural gas production and agriculture. This includes growing commodity crops for energy, such as ethanol. Natural gas operations result in removing water quantity available for agriculture, and changing the water quality, which affects the agricultural product. In drought stricken areas, water scarcity is already an issue. In addition, extreme heat as a result of climate change is putting more stress on farmers operating in already depleted watersheds. Layered on all of this is the growing realization that precipitation regimes are gradually – and in many places dramatically – transitioning from many smaller and more predictable events to fewer, more intense, and less predictable rain and snow events which is are harder for the landscape to capture, process, and store for agricultural and/or other uses.
  7. Operating costs: Farmers are already operating under razor- thin margins, with the cost of inputs continually increasing and the resilience of the soils and watersheds they rely upon coming into question with unconventional oil and gas’ expansion across the Midwest and Great Plains.

Public Lands

Over 45% of lands in the Western United States are owned by the federal government. Opening up public lands—by the Bureau of Land Management, United State Forest Service in particular—is controversial on multiple levels. As it relates to food security and independence, the issue often missed is that many headwaters to prime farmland reside on federal lands, along with the majority of cattle grazing.

There isn’t enough private land in the West for oil and gas operators to reach their production goals. They have to drill on public lands in order to scale up production and develop an export market for domestic natural gas. This means that public lands, taxpayer funded public lands, could potentially be used to irreparably harm prime agricultural and grazing lands (foodsheds). More alarming, is that the Trump Administration is focused on unfettered development, extraction and distribution of natural gas resources, including opening up public lands to oil and gas leasing and gutting regulations that protect us from pollution and public health risks.

The map we have developed shows that many of the largest farms in the West are surrounded by public lands. Sixty-percent of Colorado farms are surrounded by public lands, which are within shale basins or active shale plays.  Four of the top natural gas producing counties in Colorado are also four of the top agricultural producing counties: Weld, Mesa, Montezuma, and LaPlata counties. The third, fifth, sixth, eighth and tenth agricultural producing counties in the State are surrounded by public lands within shale basins, respectively,: Larimer, Delta, El Paso, Montrose and Douglas counties. The 6,325 farms in these counties represent 17% of all Colorado farms, and 29% (nearly half) of Colorado at-risk farms for being surrounded by public lands and within shale basins.

Colorado: Public lands surround majority of farms.

Colorado: Public lands surround majority of farms.

Colorado: zoom into 3 of top agricultural producing and natural gas producing counties in Colorado, illustrating how they are surrounded by public lands.

Colorado: Map zoomed into 3 of top agricultural producing and natural gas producing counties in Colorado, illustrating how they are surrounded by public lands.

food-table

These farms, headwaters, and public lands need to be protected if we are to maintain food independence and security. Producing potentially contaminated food is neither food independence, nor food security.

Policy Implications

Why should policy makers and health insurers care? Chronic and terminal illnesses are on the rise. Healthcare costs have nowhere to go but up as long as the environment we live in, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe continue to be polluted at such a large scale. Attempts to reduce healthcare costs by insuring all Americans will have no impact if they are all sick. The insurance model only works when there are more healthy people in the pool than unhealthy people.

Mapping Conventional & Organic U.S. Farms

Below is an interactive map showing agricultural production in the U.S. You can use the map to zoom in at the county level to understand better the type of agricultural production taking place, as well as the value of the agricultural products at the county level.

U.S. Conventional and Organic Farms and Their Productivity Near Shale Plays and Basins

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This map excludes Alaska for a variety of reasons[9]. We include over 180 unique data points for each county across five categories: 1) Crops and Plants, 2) Economics, 3) Farms, 4) Livestock and Animals, and 5) Operators. We then break these major categories into 20 subcategories.

Table 1. Subcategories Utilized in the “US Shale Plays and Basins Along with Agricultural Productivity By County” map above

Categories Subcategories
Crops and Plants Field Crops Harvested
Fruits, Tree Nuts, Berries, Nursery and Greenhouse
Hay and Forage Crops Harvested
Seed Crops Harvested
Vegetables and Melons Harvested
Economics Buildings, Machinery and Equipment on Operation
Farm Production Expenses
Farm-Related Income and Direct Sales
Farms by Value of Sales
Market Value of Agricultural Products Sold
Farms Agricultural Chemicals Used
Farms
Farms by Size
Farms by Type of Organization
Land in Farms and Land Use
Livestock and Animals Livestock, Poultry, and Other Animals
Operators Characteristics of Farm Operators
Hired Farm Labor
Primary Occupation of Operator
Tenure of Farm Operators and Farm Operations

Analysis Results

In total, there are 589,922 and 1,369,961 farms in US Shale Plays and Basins, respectively, averaging between 589 and 646 acres in size and spread across 2,146 counties (Figure 1). These farm counties produce roughly $87.31- 218.32 billion in agricultural products each year with the highest value per-acre being the Monterey and Monterey-Temblor Formations of Southern California, the Niobrara Formation in North Central Colorado, Eastern Barnett in North Central Texas, the Antrim in Michigan, and the Northern Appalachian Shale Basins of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio (Figures 2a/2b). Roughly 52% of all agricultural revenue generated in US Shale Play counties comes from livestock, poultry, and derivative products vs. a national average of 44% (Figure 3).

Put another way, the value of US Shale Basin agricultural infrastructure would rank as the 9th largest economy worldwide, between Italy and Brazil.

Family-owned farms are at the greatest risk. While corporations tend to own larger acreage farms, only 8.2% of US farms are owned by corporations. This figure is nearly halved in US Shale Plays, with 4.5% of farms owned by corporations, or 95% owned by families or individuals.


Figures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 above show the number of farms near drilling, as well as variations in the value of agricultural products produced in those regions.

Risk vs. Benefits in CO

Oil and gas activity is regulated on a somewhat patchwork basis, but generally it is overseen at the state level subject to federal laws. New York and Maryland are the only two states that ban fracking, while communities around the country have invoked zoning laws to ban fracking or impose moratoriums on a smaller scale. However, in Colorado, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over oil and gas regulation in the State. There, fracking bans imposed by local communities, with a large number of farms, have been found to be unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Weld County is Colorado’s leading producer of cattle, grain, and sugar beets. Weld is the richest agricultural county in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, the fourth richest overall nationally, and the largest natural gas producer in CO. Compare this to the North Fork Valley on the Western Slope of CO, which is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the state, one of two viticultural (wine making) areas in the state, and has a reputation for being a farm-to-table hub. Delta County, in which the North Fork Valley is located, is known for its sustainable agriculture initiatives. Uniquely, Delta County is one of the few agricultural areas in the country so far untouched by the fracking boom – but that could all change. The Bureau of Land Management is considering opening 95% of BLM lands and minerals within and surrounding Delta County to oil and gas leasing.

Protecting Food Supplies

Oil and gas extraction is taking place on both private and public lands across the country. Prime and unique agricultural lands need to be protected from these industrial activities if we are to maintain food independence and ensure a healthy food supply. As demonstrated by the map above, agricultural communities in active shale plays may already in trouble. To prevent further damages on day-to-day food staples, it is imperative to increase awareness about this consequential issue.

How can people trust that the food they eat is safe to consume? Families trust farmers, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that the food supply chain is regulated and maintained. If most of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water/soil is not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, that supply chain is at risk. The secure production of our food – via clean air, water, and soil – is tantamount to lasting food independence.

Farming Testimonials

I am the leader of Slow Food Western Slope, which functions as a chapter of Slow Food USA. We envision a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet: good, clean and fair food for all. Our chapter promotes and supports over 70 farmers, orchardists, ranchers, agricultural businesses and winemakers of the North Fork Valley – all of which depend on good and clean water, air and soil. With its industrial footprint and potential damage to landscape, air, water, soil and human health, extraction industries have no place in the future of the North Fork Valley. We can build a new economy around clean food, outdoor recreation, healthy lifestyle and small nonthreatening businesses.

Jim BrettSlow Food Western Slope

Agricultural land is much more valuable in the long-run than the short-term gains promised from oil and gas extraction… As farmers we are attuned to crop, soil, and water conditions especially as a result of weather. If it’s too hot, too dry, too wet, too cold then there is no food. Natural gas extraction is an undeniable factor in changing climate and is incompatible with the practice of sustainable agriculture.

Mark WaltermireOwner of Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss, CO

References and More Information

FracTracker Alliance raised awareness of this issue in 2015 when it mapped the proximity of organic farms to oil and gas wells. In that mapping analysis, it was discovered that 11% of organic farms are within ½ mile of oil and gas development. Did you know that less than 1% of agricultural lands in the United States are used to grow crops without chemicals, and that 42% of those organic farms produce food for human consumption?

Organic Farms Near Drilling Activity in the U.S.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This research prompted the question of what about the other 99% of agricultural lands used to grow crops and raise livestock utilizing chemicals and other conventional methods in the United States. The majority of dairy, grains, beef, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and animal feed for livestock are produced on conventional farms. Where are they located, and do we know how they are being impacted by oil and gas development?

The majority of the US population lives in urban centers and is disconnected from the American farm, including how and where food is produced. People trust their farmer, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that they trust their supply chain, and to the extent that the farmers trust their water supply and soils. If the majority of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water and soil are not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, this research questions how people can trust that their food is safe to consume. If we are to maintain our food independence and health, not only do consumers need to understand that the food supply is at risk in order to exercise their rights to protect it at the local, state, and federal levels, but policymakers need to be informed with this data to make better decisions around oil and gas development regulations and development proposals that impact our foodsheds.

References/Footnotes:

  1. 2015 Colorado Oil and Gas Toxic Release Tracker, Center for Western Priorities
  2. COMPENDIUM OF SCIENTIFIC, MEDICAL, AND MEDIA FINDINGS DEMONSTRATING RISKS AND HARMS OF FRACKING (UNCONVENTIONAL GAS AND OIL EXTRACTION), Fourth Edition, Physicians for Social Responsibility, November 17, 2016; Colborn T, Kwiatkowski C, Schultz K, Bachran M., Natural gas operations from a public health perspective, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 2011 17(5):1039-1056; Fracking Fumes: Air Pollution from Hydraulic Fracturing Threatens Public Health and Communities, NRDC Issue Brief, December 2014
  3. 49 CFR §192
  4. Brady, William J., Hydraulic Fracturing Regulation in the United States: The Laissez-Faire Approach of the Federal Government and Varying State Regulations, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 14 2012
  5. National Organic Program Standards, 7 CFR Part 205. Organic Foods Production Act, 7 U.S.C. Ch. 94
  6. Molly C. McLaughlin, Thomas Borch,, and Jens Blotevogel, Spills of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals on Agricultural Topsoil: Biodegradation, Sorption, and Co-contaminant Interactions, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2016, 50, 6071−6078
  7. AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network, November 2016.
  8. Matthew Heberger and Kristina Donnelly, OIL, FOOD, AND WATER: Challenges and Opportunities for California Agriculture, Pacific Institute, December 2015.
  9. Issues with Alaskan agricultural data include incomplete reporting and large degrees of uncertainty in the data relative to the Lower 48.

By Natasha Léger, Interim Executive Director, Citizens for a Healthy Community and Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Director, FracTracker Alliance

Ethanol and fracking

North American Ethanol’s Land, Water, Nutrient, and Waste Impact

Corn Ethanol and Fracking – Similarities Abound

Even though it is a biofuel and not a fossil fuel, in this post we discuss the ways in which the corn ethanol production industry is similar to the fracking industry. For those who may not be familiar, biofuel refers to a category of fuels derived directly from living matter. These may include:

  1. Direct combustion of woody biomass and crop residues, which we recently mapped and outlined,
  2. Ethanol1 produced directly from the fermentation of sugarcanes or indirectly by way of the intermediate step of producing sugars from corn or switchgrass cellulose,
  3. Biodiesel from oil crops such as soybeans, oil palm, jatropha, and canola or cooking oil waste,2 and
  4. Anaerobic methane digestion of natural gas from manures or human waste.

Speaking about biofuels in 2006, J. Hill et al. said:

To be a viable substitute for a fossil fuel, an alternative fuel should not only have superior environmental benefits over the fossil fuel it displaces, be economically competitive with it, and be producible in sufficient quantities to make a meaningful impact on energy demands, but it should also provide a net energy gain over the energy sources used to produce it.

Out of all available biofuels it is ethanol that accounts for a lion’s share of North American biofuel production (See US Renewables Map Below). This trend is largely because most Americans put the E-10 blends in their tanks (10% ethanol).3 Additionally, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for ethanol production to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022, which would essentially double the current capacity (17.9 billion gallons) and require the equivalent of an additional 260 refineries to come online by then (Table 1, bottom).

US Facilities Generating Energy from Biomass and Waste along with Ethanol Refineries and Wind Farms

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

But more to the point… the language, tax regimes, and potential costs of both ethanol production and fracking are remarkably similar. (As evidenced by the quotes scattered throughout this piece.) Interestingly, some of the similarities are due to the fact that “Big Ag” and “Big Oil” are coupled, growing more so every year:

The shale revolution has resulted in declining natural gas and oil prices, which benefit farms with the greatest diesel, gasoline, and natural gas shares of total expenses, such as rice, cotton, and wheat farms. However, domestic fertilizer prices have not substantially fallen despite the large decrease in the U.S. natural gas price (natural gas accounts for about 75-85 percent of fertilizer production costs). This is due to the relatively high cost of shipping natural gas, which has resulted in regionalized natural gas markets, as compared with the more globalized fertilizer market. (USDA, 2016)

Ethanol’s Recent History

For background, below is a timeline of important events and publications related to ethanol regulation in the U.S. in the last four decades: 

Benefits of Biofuels

[Bill] Clinton justified the ethanol mandate by declaring that it would provide “thousands of new jobs for the future” and that “this policy is good for our environment, our public health, and our nation’s farmers—and that’s good for America.” EPA administrator Carol Browner claimed that “it is important to our efforts to diversify energy resources and promote energy independence.” – James Bovard citing Peter Stone’s “The Big Harvest,” National Journal, July 30, 1994.

Of the 270 ethanol refineries we had sufficient data for, we estimate these facilities employ 235,624 people or 873 per facility and payout roughly $6.18-6.80 billion in wages each year, at an average of $22.9-25.2 million per refinery. These employees spend roughly 423,000 hours at the plant or at associated operations earning between $14.63 and $16.10 per hour including benefits. Those figures amount to 74-83% of the average US income. In all fairness, these wages are 13-26% times higher than the farming, fishing, and forestry sectors in states like Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa, which alone account for 33% of US ethanol refining.

Additional benefits of ethanol refineries include the nearly 179 million tons of CO2 left in the field as stover each year, which amounts to 654,532 tons per refinery. Put another way – these amounts are equivalent to the annual emissions of 10.7 million and 39,194 Americans, respectively.

Finally, what would a discussion of ethanol refineries be without an estimate of how much gasoline is produced? It turns out that the 280 refineries (for which we have accurate estimates of capacity) produce an average of 71.93 million gallons per year and 20.1 billion gallons in total. That figure represents 14.3% of US gasoline demand.

Costs of Biofuels

Direct Costs

Biofuel expansions such as those listed in the timeline above and those eluded to by the likes of the IPCC have several issues associated with them. One of which is what Pimentel et al. considered an insufficient – and to those of us in the fracking NGO community, familiar sounding – “breadth of relevant expertise and perspectives… to pronounce fairly and roundely on this many-sided issue.”

The above acts and reports in the timeline prompted many American farmers to double down on corn at the expense of soybeans, which caused Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC); the global soy market skyrocketed. This, in turn, prompted the clearing and/or burning of large swaths of the Amazonian rainforests and tropical savannas in Brazil, the world’s second-leading soy producer. More recently, large swaths of Indonesia and Malaysia’s equally biodiverse peatland forests have been replaced by palm oil plantations (Table 2 and Figure 3, bottom). In the latter countries, forest displacement is increasing by 2.7-5.3% per year, which is roughly equal to the the rate of land-use change associated with hydraulic fracturing here in the US4 (Figure 1).


Figures 1A and 1B. Palm Oil Production in A) Indonesia and B) Malaysia between 1960 and 2016.

There is an increasing amount of connectivity between disparate regions of the world with respect to energy consumption, extraction, and generation. These connections also affect how we define renewable or sustainable:

In a globalized world, the impacts of local decisions about crop preferences can have far reaching implications. As illustrated by an apparent “corn connection” to Amazonian deforestation, the environmental benefits of corn-based biofuel might be considerably reduced when its full and indirect costs are considered. (Science, 2007)

These authors pointed to the fact that biofuel expectations and/or mandates fail to account for costs associated with atmospheric – and leaching – emissions of carbon, nitrogen, phophorus, etc. during the conversion of lands, including diverse rainforests, peatlands, savannas, and grasslands, to monocultures. Also overlooked were:

  • The ethical concerns associated with growing malnourishment from India to the United States,
  • The fact that 10-60%5 more fossil fuel derived energy is required to produce a unit of corn ethanol than is actually contained within this very biofuel, and
  • The tremendous “Global land and water grabbing” occuring in the name of natural resource security, commodification, and biofuel generation.

Sacrificing long-term ecological/food security in the name of short-term energy security has caused individuals and governments to focus on taking land out of food production and putting it into biofuels.

The rationale for ethanol subsidies has continually changed to meet shifting political winds. In the late 1970s ethanol was championed as a way to achieve energy independence. In the early 1980s ethanol was portrayed as salvation for struggling corn farmers. From the mid and late 1980s onward, ethanol has been justified as saving the environment. However, none of those claims can withstand serious examination. (James Bovard, 1995)

This is instead of going the more environmentally friendly route of growing biofuel feedstocks on degraded or abandoned lands. An example of such an endeavor is the voluntary US Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has stabilized at roughly 45-57 thousand square miles of enrolled land since 1990, even though the average payout per acre has continued to climb (Figure 2).

The Average Subsidy to Farmers Per Acre of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1986 and 2015.

Figure 2. The Average Subsidy to Farmers Per Acre of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1986 and 2015.

The primary goals of the CRP program are to provide an acceptable “floor” for commodity prices, reduce soil erosion, enhance wildlife habitat, ecosystem services, biodiversity, and improve water quality on highly erodible, degraded, or flood proned croplands. Interestingly CRP acreage has declined by 27% since a high of 56 thousand square miles prior to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 being passed. Researchers have pointed to the fact that corn ethanol production on CRP lands would create a carbon debt that would take 48 years to repay vs. a 93 year payback period for ethanol on Central US Grasslands.

To quote Fred Magdoff in The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels:

Alternative fuel sources are attractive because they can be developed and used without questioning the very workings of the economic system — just substitute a more “sustainable,” “ecologically sound,” and “renewable” energy for the more polluting, expensive, and finite amounts of oil. People are hoping for magic bullets to “solve” the problem so that capitalist societies can continue along their wasteful growth and consumption patterns with the least disruption. Although prices of fuels may come down somewhat — with dips in the business cycle, higher rates of production, or a burst in the speculative bubble in the futures market for oil — they will most likely remain at historically high levels as the reserves of easily recovered fuel relative to annual usage continues to decline.

Indirect Costs: Ethanol, Fertilizers, and the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

This is the Midwest vs. the Middle East. It’s corn farmers vs. the oil companies. – Dwaney Andreas in Big Stink on the Farm by David Greising

Sixty-nine percent6 of North America’s ethanol refineries are within the Mississippi River Basin (MRB). These refineries collectively rely on corn that receives 1.9-5.1 million tons of nitrogen each year, with a current value of $1.06-2.91 billion dollars or 9,570-26,161 tons of nitrogen per refinery per year (i.e. $5.42-14.81 million per refinery per year). These figures account for 27-73% of all nitrogen fertilizer used in the MRB each year. More importantly, the corn acreage receiving this nitrogen leaches roughly 0.81-657 thousand tons of it directly into the MRB. Such a process amounts to 5-44% of all nitrogen discharged into the Gulf of Mexico each year and 1.7-13.8 million tons of algae responsible for the Gulf’s growing Dead Zone.

Midwest/Great Plains US Ethanol Refineries and Crop Residue Production

Leaching of this nitrogen is analogous to flushing $45.7-371.6 million dollars worth of precious capital down the drain. Put another way, these dollar figures translate into anywhere between 55% and an astonishing 4.53 times Direct Costs to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries of the Dead Zone itself.

These same refineries rely on corn acreage that also receives 0.53-2.61 million tons of phosphorus each year with a current value of 0.34-1.66 billion dollars. Each refinery has a phosphrous footprint in the range of 2,700 to 13,334 tons per year (i.e., $1.72-8.47 million). We estimate that 25,399-185,201 tons of this fertilizer phosphorus is leached into the the MRB, which is equivalent to 19% or as much as 1.42 times all the phosphorous dischared into the Gulf of Mexico per year. Such a process means $16.13-117.60 million is lost per year.

Together, the nitrogen and phosphorus leached from acreage allocated to corn ethanol have a current value that is between 75% and nearly 6 times the value lost every year to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries.

Indirect Costs: Fertilizer and Herbicide Costs and Leaching

The 270 ethanol refineries we have quality production data for are relying on corn that receives 367,772 tons of herbicide and insecticide each year, with a current value of $6.67 billion dollars or 1,362 tons of chemical preventitive per refinery per year (i.e. $24.7 million per refinery per year). More importantly the corn acreage receiving these inputs leaches roughly 15.8-128.7 thousand tons of it directly into surrounding watersheds and underlying aquifers. Leaching of these inputs is analogous to flushing $287 million to $2.3 billion dollars down the drain.

What’s Next?

During the recent Trump administration EPA, USDA, DOE administrator hearings, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was cited as critical to American energy independence by a bipartisan group of 23 senators. Among these were Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Chuck Grassley, who co-wrote a letter to new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt demanding that the RFS remains robust and expands when possible. In the words of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp – and long-time ethanol supporter – straight from the heart of the Bakken Shale Revolution in North Dakota:

The RFS has worked well for North Dakota farmers, and I’m fighting to defend it. As we’re doing today in this letter, I’ll keep pushing in the U.S. Senate for the robust RFS [and Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs)] we need to support a thriving biofuels industry and stand up for biofuels workers. Biofuels create good-paying jobs in North Dakota and help support our state’s farmers, who rely on this important market – particularly when commodity prices are challenging.

Furthermore, the entire Iowa congressional delegation including the aforementioned Sen. Grassley joined newly minted USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue when he told the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association:

You have nothing to worry about. Did you hear what he said during the campaign? Renewable energy, ethanol, is here to stay, and we’re going to work for new technologies to be more efficient.

How this advocacy will play out and how the ethanol industry will respond (i.e., increase productivity per refinery or expand the number of refineries) is anybody’s guess. However, it sounds like the same language, lobbying, and advertising will continue to be used by the Ethanol and Unconventional Oil and Gas industries. Additional parallels are sure to follow with specific respect to water, waste, and land-use.

Furthermore, as both industries continue their ramp up in research and development, we can expect to see productivity per laborer to continue on an exponential path. The response in DC – and statehouses across the upper Midwest and Great Plains – will likely be further deregulation, as well.

From a societal perspective, an increase in ethanol production/grain diversion away from people’s plates has lead to a chicken-and-egg positive feedback loop, whereby our farmers continue to increase total and per-acre corn production with less and less people. In rural areas, mining and agriculture have been the primary employment sectors. A further mechanization of both will likely amplify issues related to education, drug dependence, and flight to urban centers (Figures 4A and B).

We still don’t know exactly how efficient ethanol refineries are relative to Greenhouse Gas Emissions per barrel of oil. By merging the above data with facility-level CO2 emissions from the EPA Facility Level Information on Greenhouse gases Tool (FLIGHT) database we were able to match nearly 200 of the US ethanol refineries with their respective GHG emissions levels back to 2010. These facilities emit roughly:

  • 195,116 tons of CO2 per year, per facility,
  • A total of 36.97 million tons per year (i.e., 2.11 million Americans worth of emissions), and
  • 22,265 tons of CO2 per barrel of ethanol produced.

Emissions from ethanol will increase to 74.35 million tons in 2022 if the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007’s prescriptions run their course. Such an upward trend would be equivalent to the GHG emissions of somewhere between that of Seattle and Detroit.

What was once a singles match between Frackers and Sheikhs may turn into an Australian Doubles match with the Ethanol Lobby and Farm Bureau joining the fray. This ‘game’ will only further stress the food, energy, and water (FEW) nexus from California to the Great Lakes and northern Appalachia.

We are on a thinner margin of food security, just as we are on a thinner margin of oil security… The [World] Bank implicitly questions whether it is wise to divert half of the world’s increased output of maize and wheat over the next decade into biofuels to meet government “mandates.” – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Telegraph

Will long-term agricultural security be sacrificed in the name of short-term energy independence?

US and Global Corn Production and Acreage between 1866 and 2015.

Figure 3. US and Global Corn Production and Acreage between 1866 and 2015.

Figures 4A and 4B. A) Number of Laborers in the US Mining, Oil and Gas, Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting sector and B) US Corn Production Metrics Per Farm Laborer between 1947 and 2015.

Ethanol Tables

Table 1. Summary of our Corn Ethanol Production, Land-Use, and Water Demand analysis

Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year 17,847,616,000
Bushels of Corn Needed 6,374,148,571
Percent of US Production 44.73%
Land Needed 104,372,023 acres
“” 163,081 square miles
Percent of Contiguous US Land 5.51%
Percent of US Agricultural Land 11.28%
Gallons of Water Needed 49.76 trillion (i.e. 3.55 million swimming pools)
Gallons of Water Per Gallon of Oil 2,788
Average and Total Site/Industry Capacity
Average Corn Ethanol Production Per Existing or Under Construction Facility (n = 257) 69,717,250
Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year 17,847,616,000
Difference Between 2022 Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 36 Billion Gallon Mandate 18,152,384,000
# of New Refineries Necessary to Get to 2022 Levels 260
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 1.7
IEA 2009 World Energy Outlook 250-620% Increase Predictions for 2030
250% 44,619,040,000
# of New Refineries Necessary 640
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 150.00
620% 110,655,219,200
# of New Refineries Necessary 1,587
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 520.00

Table 2. Global Population Growth and Corn and Soybean Productivity Trends.

Percent Change Metric
+1.13% Global Population Growth Trend
Corn (Bushels Per Acre)
+1.15% Per Year United States
+1.20% Per Year Global
Soybean (Tons Per Acre)
+0.9% Per Year United States
+1.5% Per Year Brazil
Palm Oil (Tons)
+5.1% Per Year Indonesia
+2.7% Per Year Malaysia

References and Footnotes

  1. Ethanol as defined in the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Corporation Franchise Tax 5733.46 means “fermentation ethyl alcohol derived from agricultural products, including potatoes, cereal, grains, cheese whey, and sugar beets; forest products; or other renewable resources, including residue and waste generated from the production, processing, and marketing of agricultural products, forest products, and other renewable resources that meet all of the specifications in the American society for testing and materials (ASTM) specification D 4806-88 and is denatured as specified in Parts 20 and 21 of Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations.”
  2. A) Pyrolysis is included in the biofuel category and involves the anaerobic decay of cellulose rich feedstocks such as switchgrass at high temperatures producing synthetic diesel or syngas, and
    B) According to many researchers biofuels made from waste biomass or crops grown on degraded and abandoned lands with warm-season prairie grasses and legumes incur little or no carbon debt and provide “immediate and sustained Greenhouse Gas (GHG) advantages” by rehabilitating soil health and capturing, rather than emitting by way of increased fertilizer use, various forms of nitrogen including N2O, NO3, and NO2.
  3. According to Fred Magdoff, the ethanol complex is lobbying for “more automobile engines capable of using E-85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) for which there are currently 2,710 fueling stations across the country although 56% of them are in just nine states: 1) Wisconsin (117), 2) Missouri (107), 3) Minnesota (335), 4) Michigan (174), 5) Indiana (172), 6) Illinois (221),  7) Iowa (193), 8) Texas (99), and 9) Ohio (97). Some states are mandating a mixture greater than 10 percent. Ethanol can’t be shipped together with gasoline in pipelines because it separates from the mixture when moisture is present, so it must be trucked to where it will be mixed with gasoline.” The E-85 blend comes with its own costs including higher emissions of CO, VOC, PM10, SOx, and NOx than gasoline.
  4. McClaugherty, C., Auch, W. Genshock, E. and H. Buzulencia. (2017). Landscape impacts of infrastructure associated with Utica shale oil and gas extraction in eastern Ohio, Ecological Society of America, 100th Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, August, 2015.
  5. Hill et al. recently indicated “Ethanol yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas biodiesel yields 93% more.”
  6. An additional 9-10 refineries or 73% of all ethanol refineries are within 25 miles of the Mississippi River Basin.

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo, left: Oil and gas well pad, Ohio. Photo by Ted Auch.
Cover photo, right: A typical ethanol plant in West Burlington, Iowa. Photo by Steven Vaughn.


Data Downloads

Click on the links below to download the datasets used to create the maps in this article.

  1. Detailed US Ethanol water, land, chemical fertilizer, and herbicide demand
  2. Estimates of North American Ethanol Refinery’s water and land-use demand

11% of organic farms near drilling in US, potentially 31% in future

By Juliana Henao & Samantha Malone, FracTracker Alliance

Currently, 11% (2,140 of 19,515 total) of all U.S. organic farms share a watershed with active O&G drilling. Additionally, this percentage could rise up to 31% if unconventional O&G drilling continues to grow.

Organic farms represent something pure for citizens around the world. They produce food that gives people more certainty about consuming chemical-free nutrients in a culture that is so accustomed to using pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides in order to keep up with booming demand. Among their many benefits, organic farms produce food that is high in nutritional value, use less water, replenish soil fertility, and do not use pesticides or other toxic chemicals that may get into our food supply. To maintain their integrity, however, organic farms have an array of regulations and an extensive accreditation process.

What does it mean to be an organic farm?

The accreditation process for an organic farm is quite extensive. USDA organic regulations include:

  • The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substance.
  • No prohibited substances can be applied to the farm for a period of 3 years immediately preceding harvest of a crop
  • The farm must have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones, such as runoff diversions to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to the crop or contact with a prohibited substance applied by adjoining land that is not under organic management.

There are additional regulations that pertain to crop pest, weed, and disease standards; soil fertility and crop nutrient management standards; seeds and planting stock practice standards; and wild-crop harvesting practice standards, to name a few. A violation of any one of these USDA regulations can mean a hold on the accreditation of an organic farm.

The full list of regulations and requirements can be found here.

Threats Posed by Oil & Gas

Nearby oil and gas drilling is one of many threats to organic farms and their crop integrity. With a steady expansion of wells, the O&G industry is using more and more land, requiring significant quantities of fresh water, and emitting air and water pollution from sites (both in permitted and unpermitted cases). O&G activity could not only affect the quality of the produce from these farms, but also their ability to meet the USDA’s organic standards.

To see how organic farms and the businesses surrounding wells are being affected, Ted Auch analyzed certain dynamics of organic farms near drilling activity in the United States, and generated some key findings. His results showcase how many organic farms are at risk now and in the future if O&G drilling expands. Below we describe a few of his key findings, but you can also read the entire article here.

Key Findings – Organic Farms Near Oil & Gas Activity

Explore this dynamic map of the U.S. organic farms (2,140) within 20 miles of oil & gas drilling. To view the legend and see the map fullscreen, click here.

Of the 19,515 U.S. organic farms in the U.S., 2,140 (11%) share a watershed with oil and gas activity – with up to 31% in the path of future wells in shale areas. Why look at oil and gas activity at the watershed level? Watersheds are key areas from which O&G companies pull their resources or into which they emit pollution. For unconventional drilling, hydraulic fracturing companies need to obtain fresh water from somewhere in order to frack the wells, and often the local watershed serves as that source. Spills can and do occur on site and in the process of transporting the well pad’s products, posing risks to soils and waterways, as well.

Figure 1, below, demonstrates the number of organic farms near active oil & gas wells in the U.S. – broken down by five location-based Regions of Concern (ROC).

Farm-Chart1

Figure 1: Total and incremental numbers of US organic farms in the 5 O&G Regions of Concern (ROC).

The most at-risk farms are located in five states: California, Ohio, Michigan, Texas and Pennsylvania. Learn more about the breakdown of the types of organic farms that fall within these ROCs, including what they produce.

Out of Ohio’s 703 organic farms, 220 organic farms are near drilling activity, and 105 are near injection (waste disposal) wells.

Conclusion

More and more O&G drilling is being permitted to operate near organic farms in the United States. The ability for municipalities to zone out O&G varies by state, but there is currently no national restriction that specifically protects organic farms from this industrial activity. As the O&G industry expands and continues to operate at such close proximities to organic farms in the US, there are a variety of potential impacts that we could see in the near future. The following list and more is explained in further detail in Auch’s research paper:

  • A complete alteration in soil composition and quality,
  • A need to restore wetland soils that are altered beyond the best reclamation techniques,
  • A dramatic decline in organic farm and land productivity,
  • A changing landscape,
  • Wildlife habitat fragmentation, and
  • Watershed resilience … to name a few.

PA feature image taken by Sara Gillooly, 2013

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