Ethanol: The Green Fuel?
By Vladimir Posted in Energy — Comments (71) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Forget for a minute that we're subsidizing ADM and Cargill's entry into the motor fuel business with 52 cents per gallon tax credit.
Forget that the overall energy gain from raising corn for ethanol is questionable in the first place.
Ethanol is being sold to the consumer as the ultimate green fuel. Afterall, what could be greener than something that is replenished year after year?
Well, there's a downside: a giant environmental downside. Farmers use a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer to maximize crop yields. Some of that fertilizer makes its way into the watershed. For most of the Corn Belt, that runoff ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.
The result is a giant annual Dead Zone, one that has nothing at all to do with the late, great Jerry Garcia.
Every late spring, it forms 12 miles off the Louisiana coast and lasts for months: a sprawling, lifeless band of water known as the "dead zone."
Shrimp trawlers steer clear, knowing the low oxygen in this part of the Gulf of Mexico makes it uninhabitable for fish and other marine life. It starts at the mouth of the Mississippi River and can extend all the way to the Texas border, many years growing to the size of Connecticut.
It's not a natural phenomenon. Waste water and fertilizer runoff from farms and towns hundreds of miles up the Mississippi pour billions of pounds of excess nutrients into the Gulf, sparking unnatural algae blooms that choke off the oxygen needed for the food chain to survive.
Scientists point to widespread increases in the use of fertilizers and manure by large farms in the heartland. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from these compounds then wash into Mississippi River tributaries.
According to a report being drafted by the USDA, about 3.7 million acres of farmland from 2000 to 2006 were turned into wetlands or were reconfigured to prevent runoff under various incentive programs. Compare that with 12.1 million more acres of corn expected to be planted this year from just last year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
One of the biggest developments at this year's meeting is a draft report from experts appointed by the EPA. Their findings, among many, showed that previous science pointing to nitrogen and phosphorus as lead causes of the dead zone is correct.
It also sheds light on a geographic distribution of nitrogen outputs, saying 84 percent of the nitrogen in the river can be traced to the Ohio River valley and the Mississippi basin north of St. Louis.
We should seriously consider the total cost - to the economy and to the environment - that the taxpayer and the consumer is being asked to pay for this boondoggle.