“Progress” on Environment anything but

Good job team:

President Bush has signed a law requiring automakers to increase fuel efficiency by 40 percent. It also requires wider ethanol use.

Or not:

Because of rising demand for ethanol, American farmers are growing more corn than at any time since World War II. And sea life in the Gulf of Mexico is paying the price.

The nation’s corn crop is fertilized with millions of pounds of nitrogen-based fertilizer. And when that nitrogen runs off fields in Corn Belt states, it makes its way to the Mississippi River and eventually pours into the Gulf, where it contributes to a growing “dead zone” — a 7,900-square-mile patch so depleted of oxygen that fish, crabs and shrimp suffocate.

The dead zone was discovered in 1985 and has grown fairly steadily since then, forcing fishermen to venture farther and farther out to sea to find their catch. For decades, fertilizer has been considered the prime cause of the lifeless spot.

With demand for corn booming, some researchers fear the dead zone will expand rapidly, with devastating consequences.

“We might be coming close to a tipping point,” said Matt Rota, director of the water resources program for the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group. “The ecosystem might change or collapse as opposed to being just impacted.”

And this ties in with the story I noted back in September where the demand for ethanol is killing rain forests in tropical climes.

Once again, it seems like political convenience took precedence over proven science. Nobody can possibly tell me that it is better for us to be growing more and more corn for ethanol use if it means creating a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Sorry, that’s “fixing” one problem (I’ll get to that in a second) and creating one that is just as bad, and possibly even worse, in it’s place.

And let’s get back to the point of ethanol. Because guess what? There is no consensus that widespread use of ethanol (or other organic fuels) as a replacement for fossil fuels is a positive for the environment:

Energy outputs from ethanol produced using corn, switchgrass, and wood biomass were each less than the respective fossil energy inputs. The same was true for producing biodiesel using soybeans and sunflower, however, the energy cost for producing soybean biodiesel was only slightly negative compared with ethanol production. Findings in terms of energy outputs compared with the energy inputs were:

  • Ethanol production using corn grain required 29% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced.
  • Ethanol production using switchgrass required 50% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced.
  • Ethanol production using wood biomass required 57% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced.
  • Biodiesel production using soybean required 27% more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced(Note, the energy yield from soy oil per hectare is far lower than the ethanol yield from corn).
  • Biodiesel production using sunflower required 118% more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced.

Of course, the study that I copied that from is from the notoriously anti-science , in the pocket of big business folks from…..the University of California-Berkeley. And Professor Tad Patzek, one of the authors of the aforementioned paper, is a major skeptic of biofuels to say the least (though in the interest of full disclosure, his bio notes that he worked for Shell back in the day).

Once again, Congress and the administration have teamed up to take “action” that does not necessarily accomplish any of the goals with they purportedly have aimed to achieve. By trying to increase ethanol production, they may have unwittingly caused the expansion and promulgation of a large environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and may be contributing to the increase, not decrease, of fossil fuel output due to the energy used to createbiofuels.

We need to work on ways to create new alternative fuels whose use and production methods help us clean, not pollute, the environment. The rush of Washington to “do something” to fix the problems is merely meddling in areas that the politicians seem not to understand. By doing the wrong thing, this legislation merely proves that in all likelihood it will be the free market, not Washington, that will come through with the big breakthroughs that will continue to create a cleaner planet. As usual, Washington gives us a cure that could be worse than the disease…


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