Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Ethanomania's Dirty Little Secret (Great expose)
Green Fuel's Dirty Secret
by Sasha Lilley, Special to CorpWatch
June 1st, 2006
The town of Columbus, Nebraska, bills itself as a "City of Power and Progress." If Archer Daniels Midland gets its way, that power will be partially generated by coal, one of the dirtiest forms of energy. When burned, it emits carcinogenic pollutants and high levels of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming.
Ironically this coal will be used to generate ethanol, a plant-based petroleum substitute that has been hyped by both environmentalists and President George Bush as the green fuel of the future. The agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is the largest U.S. producer of ethanol, which it makes by distilling corn. ADM also operates coal-fired plants at its company base in Decatur, Illinois, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is currently adding another coal-powered facility at its Clinton, Iowa ethanol plant.
. . . Politicians from the Midwestern Corn Belt are some of the company's staunchest allies. Senators Richard Durbin, Charles Grassley, and Tom Harkin, and Representative Dick Gephardt have consistently supported lavish federal tax subsidies to ethanol producers, for which ADM is the prime beneficiary. All are recipients of political action committee donations from the agribusiness behemoth. The Wall Street Journal has referred to the former South Dakota senator and Senate minority leader as "Archer Daschle Midland," because of his unswerving support for the interests of the company.
. . .Debate has raged for years over whether ethanol made from corn generates more energy than the amount of fossil fuel that is used to produce it. UC Berkeley's Alexander Farrell recently co-authored a comprehensive study, published in Science, on the energy and greenhouse gas output of various sources of ethanol. His group found that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gases by only 13 percent, which compares unfavorably with ethanol made from vegetable cellulose such as switchgrass. "Our best guess," says Farrell, "is that using corn ethanol today results in a modest decline of greenhouse gas emissions."
Yet the enormous amounts of corn that ADM and other ethanol processors buy from Midwestern farmers wreak damage on the environment in a multiplicity of ways. Modern corn hybrids require more nitrogen fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides than any other crop, while causing the most extensive erosion of top soil. Pesticide and fertilizer runoff from the vast expanses of corn in the U.S. prairies bleed into groundwater and rivers as far as the Gulf of Mexico. The nitrogen runoff flowing into the Mississippi River has fostered a vast bloom of dead algae in the Gulf that starves fish and other aquatic life of oxygen.
To understand the hidden costs of corn-based ethanol requires factoring in "the huge, monstrous costs of cleaning up polluted water in the Mississippi River drainage basin and also trying to remedy the negative effects of poisoning the Gulf of Mexico," says Tad Patzek of the University of California's Civil and Environmental Engineering department.
"These are not abstract environmental effects," Patzek asserts, "these are effects that impact the drinking water all over the Corn Belt, that impact also the poison that people ingest when they eat their food, from the various pesticides and herbicides." Corn farming substantially tops all crops in total application of pesticides, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and is the crop most likely to leach pesticides into drinking water. . . .