Friday, March 30, 2007

The Ethanol Charade

The Wall Street Journal is reporting this morning that there is going to be record planting of corn this year:
Strong prices, driven by expanding ethanol production in the U.S., will drive corn plantings higher than even the government predicted in February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday in its Prospective Plantings report.

Farmers are forecast to plant 90.5 million acres of corn this year, a 15% increase from last year. The USDA generated excitement in February when it predicted farmers would plant 87 million acres of corn, up from the 78.3 million that were planted in 2006.
Assuming weather cooperates this is good news for farmers planting corn (and not such good news for those buying corn to feed their livestock). Unfortunately, it is terrible news for the health of our rivers and streams and for the environment in general. Here is Ted Williams, who writes for Audubon and FlyRod&Reel and is the best environmental writer in the country today, commenting on the "wonders" of ethanol:
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires that US gasoline contain 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012, up from 4 billion. One hundred and one ethanol plants are online, and 44 are under construction. Eighty million US acres were planted to corn in 2006; and the ethanol boom will require 10 million more just in 2007. Ethanol, we are being told, is going to "reduce our dependence on foreign oil" and "lead us to energy independence." "Live Green, Go Yellow," effuses General Motors, one of the major roadblocks to fuel-efficiency standards. "Fill Up, Feel Good," gushes the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council, a front for agribusiness.

How will ethanol affect your fishing, apart from possibly ruining your outboard motor? (Ethanol does this in lots of ways. Just ask David Blinken, the famous Montauk fly-fishing guide, who recen-tly spent $25,000 pulling his deck, replacing his fuel lines and tank, extracting aluminum-oxide gum from his carburetors and basically rebuilding his twin 100-horse Yamahas.) First, no crop grown in the United States consumes and pollutes more water than corn. No method of agriculture uses more insecticides, more herbicides, more nitrogen fertilizer. Needed for the production of one gallon of ethanol are 1,700 gallons of water, mostly in the form of irrigation taken from streams either directly or by snatching the water table out from underneath them. And each gallon of ethanol produces 12 gallons of sewage-like effluent.

Ethanol plants are gross polluters of air and water, and because of the exorbitant price of natural gas some of the new ones will be coal-fired, adding to the already dangerous mercury content of fish. The response of the Bush administration has been a proposal to relax pollution standards for ethanol production. Under the conservation programs of the 1985 Farm Bill and its successors, some farmers are bootstrapping their way toward sustainable agriculture, but corn production still erodes topsoil about 10 times faster than it can accrete.

The toxic, oxygen-swilling stew of nitrates, chemical poisons and dirt excreted from the corn monocultures of our Midwest pollutes the Mississippi River and its tributaries, limiting fish all the way to the Gulf where it creates a bacteria-infested, algae-clogged, anaerobic "Dead Zone" lethal to fish, crustaceans, mollusks and virtually all gill breathers. In some years, depending on seasonal heat and water conditions, the Dead Zone can cover 8,000 square miles. And it's expanding.

No habitat is more important to fish and wildlife than wetlands. They filter out pesticides and sediments, and they consume phosphates and nitrates. At least 70 percent of the wetlands in the cornbelt have already been lost. But, in order to produce surplus corn for ethanol, remaining cornbelt wetlands are being drained. In some areas--Nebraska, for instance--corn has to be irrigated by pumps that suck water from the ground faster than it percolates back in. Both pumps and the ethanol plants themselves are powered by natural gas, the frenzied production of which is creating horrendous problems for fish and wildlife in the West.

Where is the land to grow all the extra corn needed for ethanol supposed to come from? Well, the Bush administration has an idea: In testimony to Congress, the USDA's chief economist, Keith Collins, has raised the possibility of using land enrolled under the Farm Bill's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Not so coincidentally, it happens that this is precisely the idea that the corn lobby had come up with. In an op-ed in the December 6, 2006 Des Moines Register Bruce Rastetter, CEO of Hawkeye Renewables, Iowa's largest ethanol producer, writes: "First, the government should immediately release some of the 37 million acres that now sit idle in the US Department of Agriculture's Conservation Resources [sic] Program."
This last idea is an absolutely terrible idea. The CRP has been key to cleaning up streams and rivers all across the country, including Minnesota. Here is Larry Gates, DNR watershed coordinator for southeast Minnesota, in the recent issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer (an excellent free publication from the DNR):

"Intensive row-cropping started in the 1990s and has continued," says Gates. "We see larger fields of corn and soybeans. We see more conservation tillage, but I don't think it can offset the huge changes in land use because we've lost so much of our perennial vegetative cover: hay, small grains, pasture, and CRP acres."

This loss in perennial vegetation corresponds with a shift away from livestock in southeastern Minnesota agriculture, says DNR agricultural policy coordinator Wayne Edgerton.

"Federal farm program subsidy payments for corn and soybeans have resulted in more row-crop farming," Edgerton says. "The farmer is simply reacting to the lead from the federal farm bill, because that's where the money is."

"Row-crop agriculture is our greatest polluter of fresh water," says Gates. "It uses the greatest amount of chemical pesticides, and it is the greatest degrader of biodiversity. And there's no way of getting around those facts."

Facts! Who cares about facts when millions of dollars in agribusiness subsidies to politicians are greasing the ethanol skids? This is the driving force behind this charade. Companies like Archer Daniels Midland are reaping millions, paying politicians, and fleecing American taxpayers (According to one estimate--by financial analyst James Bovard of the Cato Institute--every dollar in profits earned by the nation's largest ethanol producer, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), costs taxpayers $30 - from the Williams article).

Ethanol production is awful for the environment. It does absolutely nothing to decrease our dependence on foreign oil. So naturally, we are swallowing it hook, line, and sinker.

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