Corn, Incorporated: The Ethanol ScamBy NICOLE COLSON
Counterpunch, July 12, 2008
Straight to the Source
Corn requires large doses of herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer and can cause more soil erosion than any other crop. And producing corn ethanol consumes just about as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces. Biodiesel from soybeans fares only slightly better. Environmentalists also fear that rising prices for both crops will push farmers to plow up some 35 million acres...of marginal farmland now set aside for soil and wildlife conservation, potentially releasing even more carbon bound in the fallow fields."
According to research reported last year by a team led by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, ethanol derived from corn may generate up to 50 percent more greenhouse gases than gasoline, because up to twice as much nitrous oxide may be released by the production process due to increased use of nitrogen fertilizers on corn (one of the most fertilizer-heavy crops).
In addition, in the U.S. and across the globe, forests, grasslands and other fragile ecosystems are being cleared to make way for production of corn, soybeans or other biofuel crops, causing further environmental harm.
According to one study published earlier this year in the journal Science, using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use changes, researchers found that corn-based ethanol, "instead of producing a 20 percent savings in greenhouse gases, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years."
As Nature Conservancy researcher Joe Fargione told Science Daily, "If you're trying to mitigate global warming, it simply does not make sense to convert land for biofuels production. All the biofuels we use now cause habitat destruction, either directly or indirectly."
In the Midwest "Corn Belt," for example, increased corn production for ethanol has now pushed out nearly 20 million acres of soybean production. Until recently, soybeans were regularly rotated with corn crops, but many farmers are now abandoning them in order to chase the big government subsidies that now come with corn.
Brazilian farmers, driven to plant more or the world's soybeans as a result (not to mention sugar cane for Brazil's own biofuel production), have in turn increased the conversion of the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado--some of the richest areas in the world in terms of biodiversity--into croplands and cattle pastures. Overall, the effect has been to push soybean prices higher, while encouraging intensive use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers for corn crops.
This increase in fertilizer use is already causing environmental harm. Fertilizer runoff from Midwestern farms into the Gulf of Mexico has created an algae bloom that suffocates the ocean life underneath it.
In the 1970s, the bloom used to occur just once every two to three years. Intense factory farming has made the bloom a yearly phenomenon since the 1980s. And last year, when Midwestern farmers devoted a tract of land nearly the size of California to corn cultivation--a 15 percent increase over the previous year--the "dead zone" grew to the third-largest size ever observed. Reports suggest that the dead zone this year will expand to more than 10,000 square miles, the largest size on record and nearly 20 percent larger than the previous record.
It's also worth noting that ethanol production is often bad for the health of those who live in the communities surrounding the distilleries. Reports of fires, toxic spills and air pollution are common. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded this year that "ozone levels generally increase with increased ethanol use."
A 2005 report by the Des Moines Register--when Iowa had a total of 17 ethanol plants--found that these facilities "emitted so much [cancer-causing] formaldehyde and toluene into the air that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced several large companies to install new equipment"; that several plants were built without construction permits; and that some released bad batches of ethanol and sewage into streams, threatening fish and wildlife.
Yet last year, the EPA relaxed regulations for the ethanol industry, allowing fuel-producing ethanol plants to raise their emissions of pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide from 100 tons per year to 250 tons per year.
In the years since the Register completed its investigation, the number of ethanol distilleries in the U.S. has skyrocketed--particularly since 2005, when the Energy Policy Act was passed, tripling the U.S. government mandate of biofuel production to 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2012.
In early 2006, the U.S. had just 95 ethanol plants in operation. Today, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, there are a total of 161 ethanol distilleries in the U.S.--with another 42 plants under construction and seven undergoing expansion. Iowa alone now has 41 ethanol refineries.
And will this boom in ethanol production have an impact on U.S. oil dependence? Not likely. As the Energy Justice Network noted:
Meeting the lifetime fuel requirements of just one year's worth of U.S. population growth with straight ethanol (assuming each baby lived 70 years), would cost 52,000 tons of insecticides, 735,000 tons of herbicides, 93 million tons of fertilizer, and the loss of 2 inches of soil from the 12.3 billion acres on which the corn was grown. The U.S. only has 2.263 billion acres of land, and soil depletion is already a critical issue. Soil is being lost from corn plantations about 12 times faster than it is being rebuilt.
As the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded in 1997, "ethanol's potential for substituting for petroleum is so small that it is unlikely to significantly affect overall energy security."