E15, or How to Grow the Dead Zone

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Misissippi River Basin Showing the Dead Zone / Wikimedia Commons

The Environmental Protection Agency decided in December 2009 not to decide until mid-2010 whether to allow a 50% increase in ethanol in gasoline. Gas is currently required to be 10% ethanol (E10). Allowing a maximum of 15% (E15) does not mean 15% will be required, only allowed – at least for now.

Indications are that newer car models can handle the increase, but that older cars cannot. I wonder if that means we’ll have to read the ethanol label on the pump when we drive up for a refill.

We’re a bit past midyear now and EPA hasn’t announced a decision. Lobbying has got to be fierce. Strong arguments exist on both sides – reducing American dependence on foreign oil is one. For legislators in corn-growing states, the enormous subsidies the government pays their cor-growing constituents is another, although often left unmentioned in the public debate.

In true “one man’s poison is another man’s meat” tradition, an organization representing ethanol producers has been running ads on TV pointing out that there has never been an ethanol spill in the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else.

Automotive and marine interests say increasing ethanol will harm engines. At present ethanol is practically synonymous in the public mind with corn, so arguments abound over the morality of using food to run automobiles. It’s easy to see what diverting corn to fuel did to the price of tortillas, animal feeds, and the animals the feeds feed.

None of this is going to be resolved in this essay. This one’s about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, how corn ethanol feeds it, and how increasing ethanol’s use will enlarge it.

If “the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico” sounds Stephen King-ish and creepy, it should. It is. Put aside for now the BP oil spew of the past few months, which doubtless contributed to the Gulf’s dead zone but didn’t create it.

Nothing lives in the dead zone. A really, really dead pond is startlingly clear and inviting to the eye. Trouble is, it’s dead because it has no oxygen. Anaerobic bacteria, the kind that make a closed garbage can stink, cannot live or grow in the presence of oxygen. They’re the only organisms about which that is true. (Aerobic is the opposite of anaerobic. You do aerobic exercise to increase the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream.)

The dead zone in the Gulf isn’t the only one in the world; it’s simply the largest. That title used to belong to one in the Black Sea, but it pretty much disappeared between 1991 and 2001, thanks to diminished agriculture in the area bordered by Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.

By the way, the Dead Sea, bordered by Jordan and the West Bank, is too salty to support organisms big enough to be visible, but it’s not a dead zone; it’s populated by microscopic bacteria and fungi.

We have in the Gulf of Mexico a dead zone of more than 8,500 square miles, about the size of New Jersey. And its presence has nothing to do with activities in the states along the Gulf coast.

The cause of the deadness is America’s breadbasket, the midwest, where corn is king and the growing thereof depends heavily on nitrogen fertilizers. Corn can’t grow without nitrogen. Animal manure is rich in nitrogen; organic farmers treasure it. But big farms can’t be bothered collecting manure and spreading it on their thousands of acres of corn fields. Petroleum-based nitrogen is cheaper; it’s easier to spread; and its potency is uniform, a known quantity, unlike manure, which varies depending on what the producing animals are eating.

Organic farmers use only as much fertilizer as they must, because it’s expensive, and because too much manure can cause crops to burn – not as in fire, but as in brown leaves and poor yield. Fossil-fuel based fertilizers can be used more liberally, and they are. And so when the rains come – and they’re certainly coming this summer – nitrogen washes into the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and winds up in the Gulf as the Mississippi heads toward the sea.

Nitrogen doesn’t only nourish corn, it nourishes everything it touches. In the Gulf it is a potent nutrient for algae, those tiny green plants that, after a heavy rain, grow into huge algal blooms. In time, as all things do, these plants die, sink to the bottom of the water and decompose. When things decay they consume oxygen. Decaying algae consume all the oxygen available. The lack of oxygen for the little sea creatures – shrimps, clams, oysters, lobsters, fishes – kills them as surely as if you’d sealed them in a plastic bag.

You might think that fish, at least, would swim away from the low-oxygen waters, but they don’t. The seem to lose consciousness before they become aware of the threat. And the slow-moving shellfish don’t stand a chance of escaping.

About one third of all corn grown in the midwest goes to make ethanol.

To compound the problem, we have Public Law 110-140, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which requires the production of 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol by 2022 – three times the current rate of production, requiring that three times the current amount of corn be produced.

More corn, of course, means more nitrogen as fertilizer, which means more runoff in the Gulf and elsewhere.

Demand for gasoline consumption dropped nearly 7% between 2007 and 2009, and there is no reason to believe that trend isn’t continuing in 2010. A corresponding decrease in ethanol use is a certainty, since its inclusion in every gallon of gasoline is mandatory. In February 2009, 21% of U.S. ethanol production facilities stood idle, and the nation’s second-largest producer had filed for bankruptcy.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that a 50% increase in ethanol in gasoline means a boon for ethanol producers. One wonders how much distance will there be between an allowed 15% ethanol component and a required 15%, and whether those of us who drive 10-20 year old automobiles will find ourselves being driven off the road.

A report in the March 18, 2008 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that increasing corn production to meet the P.L.110-140 goal will increase the nitrogen load in the Gulf’s dead zone by 10% to 18%. This is twice the level recommended by a task force composed of federal, state, and tribal agencies that has monitored the dead zone since 1997. The task force says it would take a 30% reduction in nitrogen runoff to shrink the dead zone.

When the laws of the United States run counter to the laws of nature, you know which win in the short term. Unfortunately, it seems part of the American psyche to major in short-term thinking. Even more unfortunately, nature bats last.

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One Response to “E15, or How to Grow the Dead Zone”

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