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Green fuel

11/12/2013

It truly does not take much to fuel the cynicism of the American public. Particularly when it has anything to do with politics.

We want to trust. We want to believe. And then optimism and hope gets run through the ringer in Washington, D.C.

Whether you fill your vehicle with ethanol-blended gasoline or not, you're at least aware of the environmental concerns driving the development of E10 fuel. A recent investigation by the Associated Press suggests the corn-based blend is not as green as it's cracked up to be.

An exhaustive study examined all the repercussions emanating from Congress' mandate to reduce greenhouse gases and global warming, strengthen the country's domestic energy supply, and decrease our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil. Adding ethanol to gasoline was signed into law by President George W. Bush, then enthusiastically embraced by President Barack Obama.

But a funny thing happened on the way to realizing clean, green biofuels. Once it was determined corn was the top choice to create ethanol, prices began rising. Prior to 2007, corn sold for about $2 a bushel. It didn't take long before that same bushel fetched more than $7. It hit an all-time high in August 2012 of $8.49, but has since retreated. The higher prices were good news for crop farmers, bad news for farmers and ranchers who needed livestock feed.

In order to meet the law's aims and to take advantage of higher prices, the amount of corn planted has increased dramatically. Land set aside for conservation is being wiped out by the millions of acres. Since the ethanol mandate became law, an estimated 7 million acres of conservation land has disappeared. Kansas can speak for 560,000 acres of that amount as farmers here have added 1.35 million acres of corn since E10 became law of the land.

Pristine prairies are being turned into cropland, releasing the carbon dioxide trapped below the surface. It takes almost 50 years before new plants can start producing replacement carbon dioxide. Some 1.2 million acres of grasslands have vanished from Nebraska and the Dakotas alone.

Billions of pounds of nitrogen fertilizer are being sprayed onto the corn, all of which seeps into the ground and enters water tables. Working downstream, those increased nitrates are increasing the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The dead zone now measures 5,800 square miles of sea floor -- about the size of Connecticut.

Instead of helping the environment, the ethanol mandate is hurting it.

"This is an ecological disaster," said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group.

The AP report didn't even take into account all the water drained from the nation's aquifers to sustain the corn or to run the ethanol plants that have insatiable thirst.

Washington needs to stop pretending corn-based ethanol fuel is green. The only green component of the entire project is the economic boost to corn farmers throughout the Midwest. That part makes sense, and needs to be factored into any equation moving forward.

But stop telling America that E10 helps the environment. It doesn't.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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