Ethanol: Not So Green After All
Ethanol is perhaps the biggest boondoggle in American history. Pushed forward by the farm lobby, we’ve been led to believe that its the clean, green alternative to gasoline. But we’ve already started seeing unintended consequences. Corn prices are higher than ever, because of demand from fuel producers for the raw material to make the ethanol that many states are requiring them to sell. Higher corn prices are themselves raising prices for everything from milk to tortillas in Mexico.
And, now, it seems that ethanol itself may not be all that great for the environment:
A surge in the demand for ethanol — touted as a greener alternative to gasoline — could have a serious environmental downside for the Chesapeake Bay, because more farmers growing corn could mean more pollution washing off farm fields, a new study warned yesterday.
The study, whose sponsors included the U.S. government and an environmental group, predicted that farmers in the bay watershed will plant 500,000 or more new acres of corn in the next five years. Because fields of corn generally produce more polluted runoff than those of other crops, that’s a problem.
“It’s going in the opposite direction from where we want to go,” said Jim Pease, a professor at Virginia Tech and one of the study’s authors.
Ethanol, a fuel made from processed and fermented plant matter, is an old invention with enormous new cachet. Proponents say that it offers an alternative to oil imported from overseas and that it emits fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush called for its use in motor fuels to be increased sevenfold by 2017. Already, 15 ethanol facilities are either planned or under construction in the mid-Atlantic, according to yesterday’s report.
But ethanol’s boom has also produced a variety of unintended, and unwanted, consequences. Because the primary ingredient at U.S. ethanol plants is corn, the price of that grain has shot up, making everything from tortillas to beef to chocolate more expensive.
In the Chesapeake area, according to the study, the drawback to ethanol’s boom is that more farmers have planted cornfields to take advantage of the prices. Corn harvests are expected to increase 12 percent in Maryland this year and 8 percent in Virginia, according to a forecast in March from the U.S. Agriculture Department.
More cornfields could be trouble, the study warned, because corn generally requires more fertilizer than such crops as soybeans or hay. When it rains, some of this fertilizer washes downstream, and it brings such pollutants as nitrogen and phosphorus, which feed unnatural algae blooms in the bay. These algae consume the oxygen that fish, crabs and other creatures need to breathe, creating the Chesapeake’s infamous dead zones.
Once again, the law of unintended consequences rears its head.