Another Gore Miracle: Turning the Gulf of Mexico Green

On his presidential campaign trail late in 1999 and in serious need of at least some farm votes, Al Gore boasted to a Midwest audience that it was he who had cast a tie-breaking vote in 1994 against a proposal by New Jersey Democrat Sen. Bill Bradley which would have cut tax incentives for ethanol fuel. “It’s well known that I’ve always supported ethanol. And I have not ducked when votes for … agricultural interests were on the floor.”

Ethanol has been a major part of Gore’s “Green” campaign to save the environment. By switching over to E85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) in our vehicles, we would supposedly consume less fossil energy while simultaneously reducing those damaging greenhouse gases that are causing everything from global warming to respiratory ailments, not to mention nasty smog. President Bush and many bi-partisan members of congress also bought into the idea, although ethanol was on the bottom of a long list of his 2005 Energy Policy ideas that included some effective steps like hydrogen fuels, tax incentives on hybrid vehicles, and encouraging automakers to produce more clean diesel cars and trucks.

Now, we discover that, thanks to increased ethanol production, something else is turning “Green” — the Gulf of Mexico. A huge 8,543-square-mile dead zone, roughly the size of New Jersey, is growing off the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana. It is the result of a huge algae growth, fueled by nutrients flushed from the farmlands in the Midwest watershed.
These feed enormous soupy green algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water, suffocating any fish, shrimp or mollusks that become trapped in that area. As the algae die, the mass of cells sink to the seafloor, bacteria break down the organic matter consuming most of the oxygen at that level which, in turn, suffocates sea stars, corals, snails and other shellfish.

What has caused this sudden ecological catastrophe? The culprit is believed to be the sharp increase in ethanol production in the Midwest — 19% more corn in 2007 than in 2006.

Being the skeptic that I am, I asked Kelly Wilson, a good friend and the best researcher I know, to dig up the statistical data on ethanol. The results confirmed my suspicions that ethanol is doing more harm than good.

At present, 6 million of the approximately 250 million vehicles in the United States are E85 Flex-fuel designed and 50% of those are in commercial or government fleets. A gallon of E85 has only 72% of the energy available to a gallon of gasoline. So, a V6 Chevy Impala which the EPA rates at 21mpg city and 31mpg highway will get only 16mpg city and 23 mpg highway on E85. (The power and drivability is almost the same.) You consume more gallons to go the same number of miles you used to get on gasoline. And, of course, E85 nationwide averages about 25 cents per gallon more than gasoline even though it returns 20 to 30% less fuel economy.

But, we’re saving fossil fuels, you say? Less petroleum and less dependency on foreign oil imports? Well, the picture is not quite that pretty. It takes 1 acre of corn to produce 300 to 330 gallons of ethanol fuel. (To replace the 200 billion gallons of petroleum products we now consume yearly, we would need to commit 675 million acres of our farmland to its production. That would be 71% of all available farmland in which case we would have to start importing our food products.)

Keep in mind that corn doesn’t grow itself and ethanol doesn’t appear magically when the corn is harvested. It takes 4,000 gallons of fresh water per acre per day to replace evaporation in a cornfield. The crop will require 129.9 pounds of nitrogen and 55.5 pounds of phosphorus fertilizer per acre. It requires petroleum products to pump, produce and deliver these. In addition, fields must be ploughed and cultivated, and crops must be harvested — all by petroleum-driven farm equipment. That requires 6.85 gallons of diesel fuel and 3.4 gallons of gasoline per acre. And to finish the distillation process after harvest requires 3.42 gallons of LPG and 33.49 kWh of electricity per acre.

All in all, it takes 1.597 gallons of diesel and gasoline used in the corn crop growth, harvesting, shipping of corn to ethanol production, and distribution of ethanol to the consumer for every 1 gallon of ethanol that is produced. And, again, that 1 gallon of ethanol is going to be 20-30% less efficient than the gallon of gasoline it is replacing.
Most of the new ethanol production plants (called dry mill operations) are now being built to use coal as their primary source of power, mostly because the natural gas that was initially used has become so expensive. The coal-fired plants produce twice the emissions and essentially cancel out the global warming benefits of the use of ethanol fuel in vehicles. Putting more E85 vehicles on the road will actually increase greenhouse gases, smog, respiratory ailments, etc.

And, it is the sharp increase in nutrient runoff which is magnifying the green “Dead Zone” in the Gulf.

Al Gore, I apologize for all of these facts. Just look at them as another “Inconvenient Truth.”