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18Nov 2013

An AP investigation finds Washington's ethanol policy deeply flawed.

An AP investigation finds Washington's ethanol policy deeply flawed.

[You can find another look at this story in Charlie Petit's post last week.]

For about a week, I've been mulling over an AP investigative story on problems with the Obama administration's ethanol policy.

I've come to the conclusion that it's a pretty good story--not a great one. And the problem is not with the reporting, but with the writing and editing.

The story reports that the Obama administration was pushed into its ethanol policy by Obama's strong support for ethanol in his first presidential campaign--a tactic aimed at winning votes in Illinois, his home state, and Iowa. That left the Obama EPA to craft regulations that would encourage ethanol use and protect the environment. As the AP's Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo write, that proved to be nearly impossible. In a meaty section in the middle of their 4,000-word piece, they explain how the administration had to cook the numbers and overlook bothersome legal constraints to demonstrate the value of ethanol as an environmentally friendly fuel.

Here, however, is where I have my concerns about the story. This important information doesn't arrive until about 1,000 words into the story. Before we get to that, we get what amounts to a summary of the story that lays out the principal points but doesn't provide details. We don't get those until the story pauses and really begins a thousand words in.

Here's the story's lede:

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.

Even the cemetery that disappeared like an apparition into a cornfield.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

It's a good lede; I was hooked. I wanted to know more. After briefly noting that George W. Bush and Obama both supported ethanol use, the story told me this:

But the ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished on Obama's watch.

Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.

The problem here is that I'm being told for the second time that ethanol production has destroyed land and pollutes the water supply, and I still don't have any details or reporting to back that up. The story goes on like this, quoting numerous sources who say that ethanol is harmful to the environment. And still, no details--no investigation.

Finally, we get to that meaty middle section with the sharp analysis of the administration's ethanol policy. But why did it take so long to get there? In effect, we get the reaction to the story before we get the story. How many readers read far enough to get to the good stuff, I wonder?

I had one more concern about the way the story was edited: It consists entirely of paragraphs with only one or two sentences. That's a mistake. This piece addresses complex issues, and it needs time and space to make its case. Readers can't be expected to digest it in such small bits.

Short, tough paragraphs--an AP specialty--can be powerful, like a punch to the midsection. But after we've been punched again and again, those punches lose their power.

Here is the AP on the EPA's effort to write regulations for ethanol:

The EPA's experts determined that the mandate would increase demand for corn and encourage farmers to plow more land. Considering those factors, they said, corn ethanol was only slightly better than gasoline when it came to carbon dioxide emissions.

Sixteen percent better, to be exact. And not in the short term. Only by 2022.

By law, though, biofuels were supposed to be at least 20 percent greener than gasoline.

From a legal standpoint, the results didn't matter. Congress exempted existing coal- and gas-burning ethanol plants from meeting this standard.

But as a policy and public relations issue, it was a real problem...

I find that difficult to digest. Longer sentences would have helped. (There is one three-sentence graf here, but it consists of only 15 words.) But merely combining the sentences into longer grafs would have gone a long way to making it more readable. For example:

The EPA's experts determined that the mandate would increase demand for corn and encourage farmers to plow more land. Considering those factors, they said, corn ethanol was only slightly better than gasoline when it came to carbon dioxide emissions. Sixteen percent better, to be exact. And not in the short term. Only by 2022. By law, though, biofuels were supposed to be at least 20 percent greener than gasoline.

From a legal standpoint, the results didn't matter. Congress exempted existing coal- and gas-burning ethanol plants from meeting this standard. But as a policy and public relations issue, it was a real problem...

The AP has done some good work here. But it hasn't served itself well with the presentation.

-Paul Raeburn

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