Commentary: Don’t blame ethanol for the dead zone

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Every year, nitrogen used to fertilize corn fields in the Midwest leaches into the Mississippi River and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Experts say the fertilizer feeds a giant algae bloom, which eventually dies and settles to the Gulf floor, consuming oxygen and suffocating marine life. The area is known as a “dead zone,” and some say the federal government’s ethanol policies are to blame. 

"There is a correlation between the increased acreage of corn being planted and fertilized in the Midwest and the size and persistence of areas of hypoxia off the Mississippi River, commonly known as the “dead zone," said Larry McKinney, Ph.D., executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico studies at Texas A& M University-Corpus Christi.

There is a false assumption that ethanol production is the reason that farmers in the Midwest are growing so much corn. It is much more complicated than that and all centers around economics. Corn production went high when crop prices soared, and corn was the best return on investment for farmers.

Those high prices weren’t exclusively because of ethanol production plants needing more corn. Even with the recent drop in corn prices to about half of the peak prices paid for corn, forecasts aren’t for corn acres to decline drastically. Therefore, no matter how much ethanol demand is built into the market, farmers are planting corn because of worldwide demand, not just ethanol demand.

So, don’t blame the dead zone on government policy encouraging alternative fuels. It’s sad to see a major agricultural university professor jumping into blaming ethanol by speaking at a Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) breakfast briefing in Washington, D.C., but McKinney did that today. 

As noted in a news release, the breakfast briefing focused on potential reforms in the renewable fuel standard and its impacts on fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and marine fisheries. CSF contends the ethanol polices now in place have had unintended and negative consequences on the our valuable coastal resource, the Gulf of Mexico, as they have contributed to creation of a growing and ever more persistent area of hypoxia off the coast of Louisiana.

In 2013, the “dead zone” covered an area of 5,840 square miles, CSF reports. That means something has to be done to reduce the problem, but blaming ethanol for nitrogen runoff isn’t the answer.

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Bob Perry    
Missouri  |  October, 30, 2013 at 10:04 AM

I saw this last spring: Is Ag Really Responsible for Gulf Hypoxia? points: 1) The most severe hypoxia occurs 200 miles west of the Mississippi Delta. Currents are predominantly to the East. (Remember tar on Florida Beaches from BP?) 2) EPA portrays Hypoxia to be much worse than NOAA data. 3) If nitrate nitrogen is the pollutant of concern, then why is it not monitored in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) on a rather constant basis? I can only find older data pre 2000 on nitrate concentrations in the gulf. There should be several monitoring sites across the GOM doing at least weekly samples. NRCS is starting to do this at the watershed sources; it should be done, as well, in the GOM to see if the changes up the watershed affect concentrations in the GOM. 4) It is Science Fair Season in the Heartland and if this multi‐million dollar Reducing Nutrients in the MARB project of NRCS and EPA were a science project in the Junior High Division, it would not get a blue ribbon because of its faulty design. Student: The Hypothesis is too much Nitrate in the GOM causes hypoxia. So, I am going to Iowa and see if they have nitrates. Judge: Do you know where the Gulf of Mexico is? Student: Well, my dad is a plumber and he says it all runs downhill. Judge: O.K. So, how much nitrate in the gulf does it take to cause hypoxia? Student: I don’t know. Judge: Well if you don’t know how much nitrate it takes to cause hypoxia, how will you know if you reduced it enough to make a difference? Student: tears start to flow Judge: Hey, don’t cry. You have a very pretty presentation. It’s really nice. I can tell you put a lot of money into it. Student: It wasn’t my money. It was my Uncle Sam’s. Can you tell that I have judged my share.

Ken G Glozer    
Ashburn VA  |  October, 30, 2013 at 12:31 PM

This year corn planted acres exceeded 97 million acres or nearly one-third of all crop acres in the US up from about 80 million acres in the early 2000s. The vast majority of these acres are in the states whose watersheds drain into the Gulf. Compared to 2004 the acres planted in corn in 2013 has increased by nearly 20% in these states. The reason for the increase is corn ethanol now consumes about 4 billion bushels of corn annually or about one third of the annual crop while US corn exports are now significantly lower than in the early 2000s. The RFS and corn ethanol are the sole reason for the increase in acres planted in corn and a major contributor to the Gulf dead zones. To claim otherwise ignores the facts.

Francis Patrick    
Illinois  |  October, 30, 2013 at 09:59 PM

Instead of engaging in these endless arguments about whether the earth's climate is warming or cooling or if it's caused by Man or is a natural occurrence why don't we concentrate on a solution. How about using the algae bloom as a feedstock for ethanol production?

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