Cellulosic ethanol holds key to future conservation
Last updated: Wednesday, October 17th, 2007 01:05:54 PM
Blessed are the historians, for they endeavor to educate us all.
Through their scholarship, we can learn about a world we never experienced and the seismic events that shaped the one in which we live today. The American Revolution. The Great War. The Lewis and Clark expedition. The invention of the light bulb, the printing press and the automobile. The list of events — and discoveries — is endless, not to mention endlessly fascinating.
I'd like to slip back in time, if only for a moment, to see what Mother Earth bequeathed before settlement altered the landscape into its current form and function.
Imagine playing cowboy and riding horseback across the Great Plains. Imagine the never-ending sea of unbroken prairie swaying in a stiff breeze, its hypnotic resonance bursting in your ears. Imagine the gin-clear rivers teaming with fish and the unspoiled wetlands bustling with life. Imagine the oak savannah, the Buffalo Commons and the eerie desolation — nature, pure and undiluted, and unforgiving.
It's been said that history repeats itself. We could only be so lucky. The Great Plains, which today encompasses 10 states and roughly 15 percent of our nation's land mass, is America's breadbasket, where wheat and corn and soybeans, among other foodstuffs, are nurtured through scorching summers and harvested during multi-hued autumns.
But as historians will someday record, we live in a new era. Through a series of policy decisions, the nation's breadbasket is now less about putting food on our store shelves and more about refining liquid gold — ethanol — for our automobiles.
With demand for so-called alternative fuels skyrocketing, the production of corn-based ethanol is a national priority. President Bush has trumpeted prairie moonshine, as some have dubbed it, during his State of the Union address. State and federal politicians from both major parties are on board. So, too, are powerful farm groups and countless others who have a vested interest in its production.
The problem is, corn ethanol, despite catchy industry slogans touting it as a cleaner burning fuel, is bad for the environment — and on many, many levels. In fact, the increased demand for corn ethanol is driving up corn prices (as well as other crops) and encouraging producers, many of whom have struggled financially for years, to produce more and more, in areas that should never see crops. But such expansion comes with a high price to fish and wildlife and their habitats, to say nothing of the potential public health risks. In fact, the price of corn-based products — from tortillas to beer — is rising because of the demand for corn ethanol.
A new report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission estimates demand for ethanol will lead to an increase of 300.000 corn acres in the six-state watershed, sending an added 5 million pounds of nitrogen into the estuary each year. Other reports illustrate how Great Plains corn production contributes to the growing dead zone in the gulf coast.
Indeed, intensive row-cropping degrades soil quality and requires massive amounts of farm chemicals to keep it productive. It promotes soil erosion and damages our fisheries and aquatic environments.
Native prairie and wetlands are being lost. Conservation Reserve Program acres are being targeted for corn production. As one state soil scientist remarked the other day, the current system of row-crop agriculture — or what he calls "continuous corn" — is unsustainable and bad public policy.
"Only a handful of agricultural interests are benefiting from the corn culture," he said. "It's bad for flora and fauna, hunters and anglers."
True enough. But what's the alternative? How do we reduce our dependence on foreign oil and maintain a healthy environment? Are those goals mutually exclusive? I can hear some of you now — Winkelman, we want answers. You can diagnosis the problems, criticize those who are responsible for them, but you're MIA when it comes to providing solutions.
Fair enough. Try this one on for size: Over the last several months, media reports have dramatically increased about the prospects and viability of so-called cellulosic ethanol as an alternative to corn ethanol. One of the latest: Researchers from Spinx Oil Co. and Clemson University are teaming up to study switchgrass as a feedstock for ethanol.
Simply stated, cellulosic ethanol — which is derived from plant cellulose and converted into ethanol — could revolutionize our farm economies while healing our despoiled land and water, natural-research officials believe.
Cellulosic ethanol can be made from several different plants, including switchgrass and native prairie mixes. That1s right, the same native prairie found across the Great Plains before settlement.
Michigan State University professor Bruce Dale, who has been working on cellulosic ethanol for three decades, says it could reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, lower fuel prices and wean us from our addiction on foreign oil.
In effect, we could bring back the Great Plains (or a vestige of it) by producing cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass or native-prairie mixes.
Imagine how grassland-nesting birds, many of which have been declining for decades, would respond to more grass on the ground.
The bad news is that the technology to convert plant cellulose into ethanol is years away. The good news is that investment in that conversion technology is off the charts. Make no mistake: We are living in a new era.
And someday, historians will tell us how it turned out.
Babe Winkelman is a nationally known outdoorsman who has been teaching people to fish and hunt for 25 years. Watch his award-winning "Good Fishing" television show on WGN-TV, Fox Sports Net, The Men's Channel, Great American Country Network and The Sportsman's Channel. Visit www.winkelman.com for air times.