Christopher K. Wright and Michael C. Wimberly at the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence at South Dakota State University reported the first indications that the potential for using cellulosic biofuels in the United States may be all but lost in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on Feb. 18, 2013.
The researchers used land cover data from 2006 and 2011 to analyze grassland conversion across the Western Corn Belt, which encompasses North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa.
Grasslands have declined by over 1.3 million acres, primarily in Nebraska and the Dakotas, with the highest grassland conversion rates occurring in South Dakota and Iowa.
The conversion of marginally productive lands that contain normally abundant alternative sources of cellulosic ethanol like switchgrass adds to the carbon imbalance because the marginal lands need two to three years of tillage and fertilization to make the land productive enough for soy or corn farming.
A renewable natural source of ethanol appears to have been lost in favor of profits from corn and soy production in the Western Corn Belt and this activity may well herald the demise of such ventures across the United States.
The researchers also note the loss of habitat for native animals and transient birds has been a result of the practice of marginal land conversion as well as an increase in the run off of fertilizers and other chemicals into the water systems in the Western Corn Belt.
In short, ethanol made money and harmed the environment after all the hype.