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Volume 15, Issue 24 ~ June 14 - June 20, 2007


Why Biofuels and Dead Zones Don’t Mix

There are reasons to be suspicious of ethanol.

Yes, ethanol can bring modest reductions in greenhouse gases because of the amount of oil it displaces in fuel. But it comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers: at least $300 to remove a ton of carbon from the atmosphere at a time when that ton can be removed for $20 on Europe’s Carbon Trading Market.

Second, we are propping up ethanol with continuous subsidies, starting at 51 cents per gallon at the federal level to producers and extending to goody bags of grants and tax exemptions at the state and local levels. (Ethanol has just two-thirds the energy value of gasoline, by the way.)

But these aren’t the principal reasons why we in Chesapeake Country should be concerned when we hear ethanol portrayed as the great hope and when we read about proposals to build Maryland ethanol plants, including a waterfront refinery at Curtis Bay approved by the state last month.

To fuel the ethanol market, Maryland farmers, like farmers everywhere, are growing much more corn: an estimated 550,000 acres this year, up more than 12 percent over last year, according to the U.S Agriculture Department.

That is roughly in line with what is happening on croplands across America, where more corn was planted this spring than at any time since the World War II food-shortage era.

The problem stems from corn’s hunger for nitrogen; corn is among the neediest of crops because of its inability to convert nitrogen from the air.

Nitrogen runoff creates algae blooms that destroy oxygen in the water and kill living things, the principal reason for the dead zones that have begun appearing with regularity in Chesapeake Bay.

It’s worse in the Gulf of Mexico, where an expanse of oxygen-poor waters where the Mississippi River dumps in farm fertilizers is roughly the size of New Jersey.

A task force is meeting down there this week to look at the preliminary results of an EPA-convened scientific panel, which concluded that “extreme rapid growth of grain-based ethanol production has major water complications” for the Mississippi basin and the entire country.

We understand ethanol’s benefits. But until the second-generation arrives — when we have the technology to convert wood and waste to fuel — beware of the hype. And the pollution.

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