Ethanol production threatens Gulf

The Daily Advertiser, Lafayette, LA; October 14, 2007

Production of ethanol from corn can increase the threat to water bodies such as the Gulf of Mexico. The National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, says corn requires a large amount of fertilizer and water resources.

The flow of fertilizer and other nutrients down the Mississippi will increase. The nutrients feed microscopic organisms, which use up oxygen in the Gulf as they die and decompose. The low-oxygen water plays a key role in creating dead zones, where oxygen levels are too low to support marine life.

In 2006, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone covered almost 6,700 square miles. Experts predicted near-record sizes this year.

In the oxygen-depleted water, fish flee and bottom-feeding marine life is killed.

In ordinarily productive areas like Grand Isle, it kills off shrimp and speckled trout. Shrimpers are particularly hard-hit. Unable to trawl in the dead zones, they must fish farther out. That pushes their expenses up. The situation will worsen with an increase in corn crops and ethanol production.

A plan launched in 2001 to alleviate the effect of the dead zones on the fishing industry apparently has had little effect because of bad judgment on the part of the federal government in offering incentives. The incentive for farmers has been too small.

Federal funds have been made available for those farmers willing to set aside land for conservation, thus reducing the amount of fertilizer that eventually finds its way into the Gulf of Mexico. This might have worked, but the feds decided to offer farmers larger subsidies for planting and using fertilizer than for conserving and sending less fertilizer into the Gulf.

We are looking now at a massive increase in corn production with no real plan for protecting Gulf waters.

Last year, nearly 5 billion gallons of ethanol were produced, developed primarily from corn. President Bush has called for production to reach 35 billion gallons a year by the year 2017.

Doug Daigle, coordinator with the Lower Mississippi River Sub-Basin Committee on Hypoxia, said the report raises the same old question of funding priorities. There will be more federal money for corn production, but not for programs to address the dead zone problem in the Gulf.

Daigle says the decision so far is not to protect the fishing industry there.

"The public needs to know that," he said, "especially in Louisiana."

Jerald Schnoor, chairman of the report committee of the National Research Council, says the challenge is producing bio-fuels in an environmentally friendly way.

One possibility is development of new technologies that would enable bio-fuels to be produced from less-demanding crops such as native grasses or wheat straw. Some of these perennial crops are better than corn at preventing soil erosion.

An environmentally friendly ethanol process is imperative if Louisiana is to continue reaping the benefits of a strong fishing industry.