Environmental Defense report soft on ethanol problems
The Environmental Defense organization released a report, discussed on its web pages and in a related web article written by one of the report’s co-authors, about the potential negative effects of ethanol production on the environment.
The report, a downloadable PDF, Potential Impacts of Biofuels Expansion on Natural Resources [PDF], discusses the damage that ethanol production could do to the Ogallala Aquifer, the center of the famous 1930’s Dust bowl and
“one of the world’s largest aquifers and an important water source for the eight Great Plains states it lies beneath: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.”
The report, as summarized on the Environmental Defense website, warned of the following:
” Making ethanol requires substantial resources. For example, between three and six gallons of water are needed to produce one gallon of ethanol. Our study shows how plans to expand the production of ethanol, primarily with corn-based feedstock, will further strain the region’s resources. Topping the list of potential issues are:
- increased use of water in places where supplies are already dwindling,
- retired croplands reverting to working lands, and
- the loss of important grasslands to crop production.”
However, this warning is mild compared to more recent conclusions and studies, including one study from the National Research Council and one from the United Nations,. I have discussed these reports before.
Water shortages are ONE consequence of ethanol production, and the ED is correct to point this out. However, the conversion of corn to ethanol carries with it a much higher environmental burden and actual cost: the increased runoff of fertilizer alone threatens rivers, streams and other bodies of water, including the Gulf of Mexico. This harmful process is also heavily subsidized by Federal and State tax dollars in the US.
Until we can implement biomass to ethanol conversion commercially, the UN has called for a halt to biofuel use. The current methods compete too much with food and cause too much environmental damage. Jane Goodall has stated that biofuels, while helpful in principle, damage the rain forests if made without proper foresight and methods. I agree with the UN and with Jane Goodall.
We also need to explore and solve apparent health issues from ethanol-based fuel, as found by sampling the air quality of Brazil, where many cars have been running on 100% ethanol for decades. The health issues are directly related to high amounts of ozone and formaldehyde in Brazilian air- these are substances associated with serious respiratory problems and, in the case of formaldehyde, with causing cancer in lab mice.
It seems to me that we could eliminate the harmful emissions with proper catalytic converter design or other adjustments to the combustion engineering of cars, but (a) I’m just speculating and (b) somebody has to work on it.
So, I’m am surprised at the “lack of teeth” in Environmental Defense’s report, and its focus just on water use, with no mention of damage to water quality or food supply.
I am a financial supporter of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)- I’m confused about whether there is any relationship between ED and EDF. I haven’t had issues with EDF in the past, and I’m getting the impression that the groups aren’t linked. Sorry- I need to clarify this. Will do in the next post.
© James K. Bashkin, 2007