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

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  1. Good observation – perhaps ED has promoted ethanol too long to back away now?

    Here’s more of an international perspective re impacts on food prices, lack of real reduction in emissions and the huge subsidies involved: Ethanol: The Great Big Green Fraud http://stephenleahy.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/ethanol-the-great-big-green-fraud/

  2. Thanks for the careful reading, and for posting the links! EDF and Environmental Defense are the same group. We officially shortened our name nearly a decade ago. But many people still know us best by “EDF,” and we’re considering a return to our original name.

    As far as your comments on this report — it is indeed narrow in scope. Often, focus is the best way to make a point with a particular group or legislator. So this report isn’t meant to be a full analysis of how expanding the biofuel use would affect all our complex systems, economic and natural.

  3. Stephen: thanks for the feedback and excellent link.

    Kira: thanks for the clarification, both about the name of the group and the purpose of the report. I can understand taking small steps when dealing with some legislators. I guess I would have been more comfortable with at least a mention of the other potential issues.

    Best wishes,


  4. Hi,

    About our environment, really…




    Best regards… 🙂
    friend Josef

  5. Hi James,

    I understand that the corn-based biofuel is not the long-term solution. It might do more harm than good to the environment. However, I think a large biofuel market will stimulate more research activities in the biofuel industry. Ultimately, we will see a better way to produce biofuel. What do you think?

  6. Hi Steven. I see your point and it is a good one. The problems I have include the fact that the tax money being used to subsidize ethanol production now should be going to what you suggest, research for better biofuel choices. I don’t think for a moment that the major recipients of the tax dollars are doing much research. In fact, I’m about to blog an article showing that these ethanol producers are barely breaking even at best, even with the huge subsidies, so I don’t think the money is going to research.

    At the same time, the corn-ethanol program has developed great momentum, and all it is doing is burning tax money, using water that we don’t have enough of (Environmental Defense covered that nicely) and polluting water with the fertilizer runoff (and pesticides). These things are happening while food is not being produced on lots of land that used to feed people.

    As for research, in general, research funding is very scarce in the US these days. Many people are being forced to quit academic research because they can’t obtain funding (friends of mine- this is no urban legend).

    Much of the money that used to go to research now goes to the war, of course, or is diverted to defense-related research instead of being sent to the best grant proposals. So, burning up all the tax money on subsidizing a polluting and economically unsound bio ethanol industry is just pulling funds away from research, not encouraging research.

    One of the big problems with government handouts like those for ethanol fuel is that they encourage lack of innovation by allowing poor technology to survive (I’m a Democrat, so I’m not against government spending, I’m just against spending it on the wrong things).

    Anyway, an excellent discussion point. Thanks for the feedback!

  7. Hi Jim,


    Politically, “credit” is easy to sell., However, after reading your explanation, it looks to me that “tax”, such as carbon tax, pollution tax, natural resources tax might the only way to go. I would like to hear your thoughts about this.


  8. Steven, thanks for the feedback.

    Tax can certainly be appropriate. It really depends on the details of each case.

    For example, in Europe, people pay twice what we do for gasoline/petrol, and, as I understand it, the sole reason is taxes imposed by the central governments. This kind of tax hits the wealthy with huge cars, but it also hits the poor. We don’t have the quality of public transportation that is often available in Europe, however, and the US also encompasses some very long distances and extremes of weather compared to what are typically relevant for Europeans, so this kind of simple tax on fuel could cause real hardship for lower and middle income people. Meanwhile, those who can afford ridiculous cars and absurdly low gas mileage won’t necessarily be deterred by cost- money is no object to many of them.

    Too much corporate tax will cause companies to relocate (or relocate jobs) to other countries even more than they already are. So, taxes are complicated and I don’t really have a blanket statement to make about them on environmental issues.

    I guess the one blanket statement I will make is that there are strange and serious problems with our US tax codes (corporate and individual). I’ll skip the individual issues- I don’t know enough to comment sensibly.

    Regarding corporate taxes, if I understand things correctly, the following is true: if a company builds a new facility, say a new chemical plant, it gets taxed more in the US because the company has increased its capital holdings. In contrast, the company would possibly receive tax credits in Europe.

    This kind of policy in the US discourages innovation. It also discourages the dismantling of old, environmentally unfriendly processes in favor of new, greener approaches to industry. In some cases, green inventions from the US may actually be put into commercial practice in Europe. We lose out in many ways in the US. These capital taxes are not sufficiently offset by any environmental tax credits in cases that I am aware of, though this kind of thing changes all the time, so I could be out of date.

    There are lots of approaches that can help. Enforcement is one. It is hard for EPA to enforce when its budget has been cut back dramatically (FDA has similar budget problems). Much of this is due to the current administration.

    It would be nice to see more pressure on trading partners like China and Mexico (etc., etc.) to pay fair wages, provide safe and healthy working conditions, and protect the environment. This would be good for the environment and might keep certain jobs in the US (or in Europe).

    Other suggestions or comments from readers?

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