By on January 3, 2008

gumbo3bg_122499.jpgFirst there were rumors of "tortilla riots" in Mexico. Then, as the price of corn-based feed skyrocketed, meat and egg prices rose. As hops farmers switched to corn, beer prices followed suit. And now MSNBC reports the booming corn-for-ethanol market is expanding the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. As farmers plant more corn and use more nitrogen-based fertilizer, they're increasing the amount of run-off that ends up in the Gulf via the Mississippi River. The nitrogen surge is leading to heavy algae growth, which depletes the water of oxygen (as it dies and decays), which suffocates shrimp, crabs, oysters and other sea life. Environmentalists say if something isn't done, the ethanol industry's knock-on effects threatents the Gulf's entire ecosystem and the livelihood of thousands of fishermen along the coast. Not to mention the escalating price of shrimp gumbo and oyster po'boys.

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31 Comments on “Ethanol Production is Killing the Gulf...”


  • avatar
    jazbo123

    Another doomsday scenario from environmental nutjobs. Oh well, it has been at least a week since the last one.

  • avatar
    lewissalem

    The only “dead-zone” I can see here is mainstream journalism. I like to refer to it as agitprop. Seriously, I could write a small perl script that could replace these has-beens.

  • avatar
    B-Rad

    Corn Ethanol=The DEVIL

    …that may be a little extreme, but I feel very strongly on the subject.

  • avatar
    folkdancer

    We burn fuel and we pollute our air. We capture the wind for fuel and we clutter our landscape. We create fuel with nuclear power and we are stuck with waste for 1,000s of years. We grow fuel and we kill the shrimp. Maybe there is just too dam many of us.

  • avatar

    Many people know, and knew a while ago, that Corn Ethanol was going to be an ecological disaster but those subsidies kept, keep, rolling in…
    ‘Corn ethanol subsidies totaled $7.0 billion in 2006 for 4.9 billion gallons of ethanol. That’s $1.45 per gallon of ethanol (and $2.21 per gal of gas replaced).’
    http://zfacts.com/p/63.html for more info.
    You can’t say the republicans aren’t generous!

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Yes, that’s right everyone. The dead zone around all those rigs out in the gulf is caused by Big Ag, not Big Oil. Ironic isn’t it?

  • avatar
    N85523

    OK, you’ve had your fun, now Congress, step away from the ethanol subsidies. No need to hurt anyone else.

    This is going too far. Whenever I venture home to the Texas Gulf Coast, I love to wet a line in the Gulf and I gorge myself on Shrimp and fish and the oysters other than the Rocky Mountain variety (Goode Company Seafood, anyone?) and if this market is destroyed by Ethanol, I’m going to move to Tonga.

    Good point, Folkdancer. While there are not too many of us to inhabit the earth, the population is reaching a high enough value that we cannot have Macy’s quality at Wal-Mart prices without paying other less obvious prices. Though I have a general loathing and hatred for the Sierra club and their tactics, I really wish that they’d address this issue before going after energy and the automotive industry.

  • avatar
    NN

    I live near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, which is suffering a similar problem from the corn production in the watershed.

  • avatar
    AKM

    Maybe there is just too dam many of us

    A resurgence of wolves in Montana and Wyoming is causing a problem…there are 1,500 wolves, for 2m humans. Reading that article left me wonder the same thing as you. Oh well, at least corn ethanol will help in this regard: it’s another inefficient way to power our behemoths, and since it leads to food price increases, there’ll be more famine around, i.e. less of us.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    I’ll continue to repeat it in every article on this subject. Ethanol is more destructive to our environment than the burning of fossil fuels. The damage to the soil, the water, and the trickle down damage to every creature that depends on that water-that would be everything-is far greater than the damage caused by burning fossil fuels. Who could have predicted that using water for irrigation rather than drinking, dumping tons of additional fertilizers into our waterways, and removing farm land from food production would be a bad thing? Evidently not our “representatives”. Maybe they were blinded by all the green in front of their eyes when the farm lobbyists came around?

  • avatar
    Ed S.

    Another doomsday scenario from environmental nutjobs. Oh well, it has been at least a week since the last one. -jazbo123

    Listen guys, I’m all for giving the chicken-littles their deserved chastising but this article is just a statement of fact. This dead zone in the Gulf is a scientific fact. The size of the dead zone is a direct reflection of mankind’s activities in the Gulf watershed. There’s no question about this relationship.

    Now, to link the dead zone with corn subsidies is an opinion, but one that can be supported through observed changes in the Gulf waters and records kept by the DoA regarding farming in the Gulf watershed.

    So, what conclusion can we draw from this? Dead zones are not good. Dead zones are caused primarily by nitrogen-rich fertilizers, therefore the use of fertilizers use should be limited if geographic and/or chemical alternatives exist. Certainly, use of fertilizers and other environmentally costly resources (water use, soil erosion, processing & transport) should not be incentivised.

    I’m not sure anyone can really argue with this, can they?

    I am not in support of corn incentives for ethanol production. I think plug-in hybrids burning dead dinos when required is better then E85 for this country. Money should be funneled to plug-in hybrid technology development…even if it’s earmarked only to the Big 3.

  • avatar
    detroit1701

    It seems to me that this is a problem that the Government of Mexico should be handling, not an inherent problem with corn-based ethanol. Many economic phenomenon effect disproportionate impacts in different parts of the world. For instance, cotton subsidies in the U.S. have been argued to destroy local textile industries in the Niger Valley. Demand for coal causes disastraous strip mining around the worlds. The precious mineral trade causes smuggling and death. Etc etc etc.

    It appears that Mexico can react in a number of ways — require cleaner fertilizer, limit coastal farming, encouraging farmers to grow something else, using some of its incredible oil wealth to subsidize its corn farmers — point is the national environmental overreaction has little to do with the feasibility of E85 from corn (or better yet, algae, or whatever).

    When commodities like food items become too expensive, people switch to substitutes. Corn gets too expensive? Try wheat. Oranges skyrocketing? Try grapefruits or pineapples. Point is: this is about Mexico’s dietary preference for corn tortillas, and not about anyone starving.

    There is plenty of unused land in North America upon which to grow food. As for water, maybe we should stop sending our available water to support and subsidize desert oases in New Mexico, Arizona, and California — and use it more intelligently.

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    I agree we should seek to find a sustainable fuel source that has limited negative impact to the environment. However, when we have rampant fear mongering combined with powerful people seeking to exploit said fear for personal gain rather than environmental benefit the solutions are inevitably worse than the original problem.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    Such sustainable fuel sources that have limited negative impact to the environment are for the most part, nonexistent. Pick a fuel, any fuel, and you’ll find environmental red flags either in mass production or large quantity consumption.

    I can imagine the day approaching where environmentalits will turn radical and call for population control to save the planet.

  • avatar

    quasimondo :

    I can imagine the day approaching where environmentalits will turn radical and call for population control to save the planet.

    That day was sometime back in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich wrote “The Population Bomb.”

  • avatar
    B-Rad

    quasimondo:

    I think cellulosic ethanol might be our best choice at this point. I’m not too worried about environmental impacts (at least not about global warming) but as far as reducing our dependence on oil, we may not be able to do better.

    While it is more expensive than most fuels right now (and not widely produced) I believe that it is getting cheaper as more people get interested. On the plus side, environmental impact is better than corn ethanol and there is more potential energy.

    A couple months ago I googled cellulosic ethanol and got a really good website that I can’t find now. But if you do google it, I’m sure there are other just as informative websites.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    That day was sometime back in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich wrote “The Population Bomb.”

    History always finds a way to repeat itself…

  • avatar
    Engineer

    Converting FOOD into FUEL violates the first principle of chemical engineering: to add value to materials. It’s that simple.

    Such sustainable fuel sources that have limited negative impact to the environment are for the most part, nonexistent. Pick a fuel, any fuel, and you’ll find environmental red flags either in mass production or large quantity consumption.
    Some a clearly better than others. Food has to be the worst. Converting waste into fuel would be the best, solving two problems (waste disposal and fuel production) at the same time. Too bad the waste lobby in Washington DC is so small.

    I think cellulosic ethanol might be our best choice at this point.
    Cellulosic gasoline or diesel (aka “green” or “renewable” diesel) would be better, as it can be used in ALL existing infrastructure. With only 2/3rds the energy content of gasoline, ethanol is probably not the fuel of the future.

    A couple months ago I googled cellulosic ethanol and got a really good website that I can’t find now.
    Might have something to do with the fact that there are no existing cellulosic ethanol plants.

    History always finds a way to repeat itself…
    More like history keeps proving a certain dumbass wrong, and he keeps failing to learn the lesson.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    The MSNBC story says “could” kill the gulf (and mentions this phenomomena was initially noticed in 1985)
    Mr. Williams title says “is” killing the gulf.

  • avatar

    detroit1701 :
    It seems to me that this is a problem that the Government of Mexico should be handling,

    The dead zone (unless there’s another one) is right where the Mississippi River Delta dumps into the Gulf. I don’t think you can really pin it on Mexico. Except maybe all the mexicans working on midwest farms…

    http://www.ers.usda.gov/amberwaves/november03/findings/images/photo_deadzone.jpg

  • avatar
    B-Rad

    Engineer, if I’m not mistaken, Brazil uses nothing but cellulosic ethanol. It’s just a little slower on the uptake up here in North America.

  • avatar

    indi500fan :
    The MSNBC story says “could” kill the gulf (and mentions this phenomomena was initially noticed in 1985)
    Mr. Williams title says “is” killing the gulf.

    I’d consider fishermen hauling “up bucket upon bucket of dead crabs” from the Gulf enough to qualify the use of the indicative mood in lieu of the subjunctive.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    Engineer, if I’m not mistaken, Brazil uses nothing but cellulosic ethanol.
    Nope! Brazil converts sugar (from sugar cane) into ethanol. It works better because sugar cane grows so much faster than corn. They also don’t have to hydrolyze starch to get to the sugar. They also lucked out with the right climate for growing cane.

    The only cellulose used in the process is those plants that burn it (as bagasse) to supply heat for distillation. But no ethanol comes from cellulose in Brazil at present, although they are apparently working on it.

  • avatar
    B-Rad

    Damn. I think that’s twice today I’ve put my foot in my mouth (and that’s just on this site). But, yeah, now I remember that about it being sugar and not cellulose.

  • avatar
    97escort

    There is no such thing as a commercially operating cellulosic ethanol plant at the moment. The closest thing to it is government funded pilot plant operated by Poet Ethanol at Emmetsburg, Iowa. They are trying to use corn cobs to make ethanol. The problems with cellulosic ethanol are difficult. The technology is not developed. The raw material is very bulky and hard to handle and keep out of the weather. There is no established market for cellulose as there is for corn or sugar. Gathering and handling the cellulose is labor intensive and therefore expensive in the U.S.. Those who dismiss corn ethanol should suggest a feasible alternative. Most of the U.S. is not suitable for sugar cane. Peak Oil is upon us and dilly dallying will result in higher and higher gas prices until some are priced out of the market. The outlook for the auto industry, especially the sector producing gas guzzlers, is not bright.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    97escort,
    Trust me, corn ethanol is never the answer, regardless of the question or the circumstance. You just can’t afford to waste food like that.

    IF peak oil is indeed upon us, $100/bbl will seem cheap by the end of the year. But that’s the beauty of the free market, $150+/bbl will do wonders for conservation, alternatives and a host of other things.

    What we don’t need is some slick Washington DC type to command that we shall use fuel X made by process Y to benefit lobbyist Z’s funders…

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Amen Engineer.

    Here’s one better alternative to ethanol, distilled petroleum pumped form the ground. Long term solution – nuclear power plants. For any energy source to be viable, it must be able to reliably meet the energy needs of the country as well as be cost effective. At this time, the only technologies meeting that criteria are petroleum products and nuclear power. Wind, solar, and hydro aren’t reliable enough to be used for anything except potentially peak power demands, and they are also not economically feasible even with oil at $100/barrel. At least nuclear power is reliable and is approaching economic feasibility. Corn ethanol is just not practical. You would be hard pressed to find another crop that requires so much fertilizer and does so much damage to the soil. I don’t know why nobody has suggested sugar beets. Not a good crop, but much better than corn. The energy return would be higher and the soil destruction would be lower.

  • avatar
    Qwerty

    Listen guys, I’m all for giving the chicken-littles their deserved chastising but this article is just a statement of fact. This dead zone in the Gulf is a scientific fact. The size of the dead zone is a direct reflection of mankind’s activities in the Gulf watershed. There’s no question about this relationship.

    Facts? Since when did knee jerk enviromental bashers ever need facts?

  • avatar
    tdoyle

    Dammit, I’ve had enough doom and gloom in 2007, now this takes the cake in ’08 (patiently waiting for the next ice age)…

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Qwerty,

    The “knee jerk environmental bashers” stopped needing facts when the environmentalists stopped using the scientific method. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but they can make a lot of noise. This is a perfect example of why the academy should use objective self criticism instead of group think. The sowing has been done, enjoy the reaping.

    So much hype over things that aren’t real, and now you have people doubting the existence of something you can walk down to the beach and see with your own eyes (without having to go to Mexico, btw).

  • avatar

    Yes, let’s process cellulose into ethanol:

    http://www.365tomorrows.com/01/02/whoops/

    admittedly it is fiction, but it could actually happen.


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