EDITORIAL: Ethanol’s toll

The Times Picayune; Friday, March 14, 2008


Congress wants U.S. production of corn-based ethanol to reach 15 billion gallons by 2022, but that target has dire consequences for another important goal: shrinking the Gulf of Mexico dead zone to a quarter of its size by 2015.

The dead zone, which forms off the coast of Louisiana each year, is an ecological disaster caused mainly by fertilizers used in agriculture. Nitrogen and phosphorus wash into the Mississippi River from farmland upstream and end up in the Gulf where they fuel huge algae blooms. Last year’s area of low oxygen was nearly 8,000 square miles — the third-largest on record.

The link between the dead zone and the ethanol boom has been shown in several studies, including a report published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That study says expanding corn-based ethanol production will make it "practically impossible" to reduce nitrogen flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The ethanol goal set by Congress could increase nitrogren runoff into the Gulf by 10 percent to 18 percent, the researchers said. 

Meanwhile, efforts to reduce nutrient pollution remain weak and unfocused, relying mostly on voluntary efforts by states along the Mississippi. A revised plan calls for states to devise solutions "as soon as possible, but no later than 2013." No agency has been put in charge, and no federal funds have been allocated.

A serious national effort is needed to reduce nutrient pollution and shrink the dead zone, but that has yet to emerge. In the meantime, national policy that has encouraged the planting of corn on millions more acres is making the problem even worse.