Brasher: Report says ethanol may fuel dead zone

By Clean Gulf of Mexico needs bigger cuts in nitrogen fertilizer use, report says; July 1, 2007
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Washington, D.C. – Shrinking that dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be much more costly than first thought.

A group of scientists that looked at the problem during the Clinton administration targeted agricultural runoff in the Midwest as the main source of the problem and called for a 30 percent reduction in the amount of nitrogen flowing into the Gulf.

A new panel of scientists believes it’s going to take a far bigger reduction in nitrogen than that, on the order of 45 percent, according to a draft report.

And even that is not going to be enough. The scientists say that a second chemical, phosphorus, which comes from city sewage systems as well as farms, also needs to be reduced. By 40 percent.

Moreover, the report says that biofuels will likely make the problem worse, because of the increase in corn acreage and use of nitrogen fertilizer needed to keep with the demand for ethanol.

Encouraging more production of corn-based ethanol, in fact, "could nullify other efforts" to reduce the dead zone, the scientists say.

"They’re calling for a larger reduction (in pollutants) at the same time that the rush to corn-based ethanol is moving in the other direction," said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan scientist who served on the original advisory board that completed its work in 2000.

The report calls for a wholesale overhaul of agricultural programs, away from crop subsidies and into conservation measures that will reduce runoff.

The Gulf’s dead zone is an oxygen-deprived area, nearly devoid of shrimp, fish and other sea life, that appears every summer. It varies in size from 3,000 to more than 7,700 square miles, an area approaching the size of New Jersey. The oxygen loss occurs when high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus cause excessive algae.

The government’s goal is to reduce the average size of the dead zone to 2,000 square miles by 2015.

Farm groups had hoped that the latest scientific review would down play down the role of nitrogen in causing the dead zone and instead pin the issue on phosphorus. Instead, the study showed that both chemicals would have to be addressed, and raised the new concerns about biofuels. By one estimate in the report, the expanded corn acreage needed to support the ethanol industry could increase nitrogen runoff by 33 percent.

An energy bill passed by the Senate in June would require refiners to more than double their use of ethanol by 2015.

The scientists’ report is due to the Environmental Protection Agency this fall. After that, a task force comprising federal and state officials, including Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, will issue an action plan.

Iowa and other states will then be expected to come up with ways to meet the reduction goals.

And now it’s not just farms that could be affected. Cities and towns along streams that drain into the Mississippi River could be forced to remove more phosphorus.

"It simply raises the bar of where we need to try to go. There will be new resources needed to do that," said Dean Lemke, water resource bureau chief for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

The final recommendations may be finished too late to bear on either the farm or energy bills that Congress is writing this year. But if lawmakers were to heed the draft report, they might rethink their direction on both scores.

The cost of significantly reducing farm runoff in Iowa alone would be high – more than $600 million a year, according to Iowa State University economists who are studying the issue for state farm organizations. That’s roughly as much as the entire state of Kansas received in federal farm payments last year and half of Iowa’s total.

"Policymakers need to have these kinds of numbers in front of them and right now they don’t have them," said Rick Robinson, who follows environmental issues for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

"We’re going to have to make choices. Where does the money come from? Does it come from education? Does it come from public safety? Does it come from health care?"

What’s clear from the report is that the price tag for repairing the damage to the Gulf isn’t going down.

Reporter Philip Brasher can be reached at (202) 906-8138 or