Every Silver Cloud Has a Dark and Gloomy Lining

Let’s see if I get this straight. From a national environmental perspective, ethanol is good: A “green” alternative to gasoline, it burns more cleanly and emits fewer pollutants, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, toxic emissions, particulates and greenhouse gases.

But from a local environmental perspective, ethanol is bad. Most ethanol is processed from corn, and corn farmers use fertilizers, and fertilizers run off farmlands and into rivers and streams. According to a new study, farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will plant 500,000 acres of cornfields over the next five years.

As the Washington Post summarizes the report findings:

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.

Governments around the bay have pledged to cut their output of nitrogen by 110 million pounds by 2010. But the study estimated that an ethanol-driven increase in cornfields could add 8 million to 16 million pounds of pollution.

Darn, environmental policy gets complicated! No matter how good an idea sounds, there are always economic or environmental trade-offs.

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3 responses to “Every Silver Cloud Has a Dark and Gloomy Lining”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Conservation starts with conservation of matter and energy.

    You can’t get something for nothing, and you can’t throw anything away.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I don’t get a good feeling from reports like this. It’s not the issue – it’s the predictability that the MM and/or the environmental community will knee-jerk a response.

    For another point of view – which I think is much more honest and rational – check out this months Bay Journal where the President
    David Bancroft has the following views in a piece entitled:

    “Biofuels’ impact on Bay cleanup needs better scrutiny”

    …Some of the early press coverage on those reports have taken a simplified view and painted the impacts as only negative.
    A few articles in the media have pointed to increased nutrient and sediment loads and have concluded that more reliance on biomass energy and biofuels production is not a strategy compatible with the Bay watershed’s cleanup.

    In addition, some readers may have come away with the impression that state and federal environmental officials, as well as the environmental community, have a real dilemma on their hands. The story line goes that environmentalists cannot on the one hand promote biofuels, while on the other hand hope to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. If developed properly, increased production and use of biofuels can benefit Chesapeake Bay restoration.


    wow – what a breath of fresh air!

    Sometimes the environmental community functions as a virtual surrogate for Aunt Fartsmell shaking her finger at you – no matter how hard you try to be good…

    Why can’t growing corn (or switchgrass) for fuel be a “win-win” for the Bay?

    Why can best practices be updated and rules proposed to allow/encorage a genuine revival in farming… “done right”?

    I’m weary of both sides “business as usual” stances.. on issues like this and I welcome more rational (thoughtful?) thinking like that from Mr. Bancroft ( I note also in the same issue of Bay Journal there is the usual knee-jerk “the sky is falling” article… so Mr. Bancroft went out on a limb a bit.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    I’ve been running an experiment based on ethanol vs non ethanol fuel in my Hybrid. I think the results are still somewhat inconclusive, but it appears that comparing no-name 10% ethanol fuel to brand name non ethanol fuel, that the cost savings is not justified by the mileage loss.

    I pay about 2% more for brand name fuel and I seem to get 5% or more mileage from the fuel. It’s inconclusive because my driving habits arent entirely conclusive.


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