Ecological Catch 22 confronts U.S. as ethanol push increases

By Philip Brasher July 1, 2007

WASHINGTON — Shrinking that dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be much more costly than first thought.

A group of scientists who 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, on the order of 45 percent, according to a draft report.

And even that won’t be enough. The scientists say 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 biofuels likely will make the problem worse because of the increase in corn acreage and use of nitrogen fertilizer needed to keep up 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.

By one estimate in the report, the expanded corn acreage needed to support the ethanol industry could increase nitrogen runoff by 33 percent.

"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 an overhaul in 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.

The scientists’ report is due to the Environmental Protection Agency this fall. After that, a task force of federal and state officials will issue an action plan.

States will then be expected to come up with ways to meet the reduction goals.

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.

And the price tag could be high. The cost of significantly reducing farm runoff in Iowa alone would be more than $600 million a year, according to Iowa State University economists who are studying the issue for state farm organizations.

"We’re going to have to make choices. Where does the money come from?" said Rick Robinson, who follows environmental issues for the Iowa Farm Bureau. "Does it come from education? Does it come from public safety? Does it come from health care?"

Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines Register. Contact him at