We may need to wage war against corn-based ethanol production
CHRIS NISKANEN, St Paul Pioneer Press
Article Launched: 01/27/2008 12:01:00 AM CST
In southeast Minnesota, trout fishermen are fighting a proposed corn-ethanol plant near Eyota, arguing the plant will draw excessive water from local aquifers and endanger trout streams and drinking-water supplies.
The Hiawatha chapter of Trout Unlimited recently passed a resolution decrying the plant as "a significant environmental risk (to water supplies) in a sensitive area."
Elsewhere in Minnesota, Department of Natural Resources officials and conservation groups are warily watching the impact of high corn prices on wildlife-enriching grassland programs.
Ducks Unlimited officials released a report last week showing contracts for nearly 600,000 acres of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program will expire in Minnesota by 2010 - about one-third of the 1.8 million acres currently enrolled - and no one is sure how much land will be re-enrolled.
About one-third of North Dakota's CRP contracts also will expire by 2010, but North Dakota wildlife officials were shocked this fall when 400,000 acres of CRP grasslands were plowed up.
DU officials say increasing demand for corn production, spurred by government-endorsed increases in ethanol production, is encouraging farmers to drop out of CRP, endangering some of North America's most productive duck-rearing areas.
All told, DU officials report, contracts for about 4.5 million acres of CRP in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana will expire within five years, roughly one-third of the CRP grasslands in the Midwest's Prairie Pothole region. Wildlife experts aren't hopeful many acres will be re-enrolled with soaring corn and soybean prices.
Back in Minnesota, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which has strong ties to hunting and angling groups, is fighting a number of legal battles over ethanol plant air emissions, water pollution and plans by plants to draw large quantities of water from local aquifers.
MCEA officials also are concerned about a push by ethanol plants that would burn cheap coal to power "clean" ethanol plants.
"It doesn't quite make sense to burn coal to produce ethanol, does it?" said MCEA lawyer Janette Brimmer.
Corn-based ethanol, the environmental fuel of the future? It's probably the biggest taxpayer-subsided environmental lie promoted by our government in a generation.
Minnesota's hunting, fishing and environmental community, which desperately wants large-scale improvements to the state's natural resources, is arming itself to fight Big Corn and Big Ethanol.
Groups like Pheasants Forever and DU are pressing Congress to pass a Farm Bill that gives farmers extra incentives to grow grass, not corn. They're also pressing politicians to set aside money for experiments to convert grass - a wiser energy alternative than corn - into ethanol on an industrial scale.
But as the conservation community is quickly realizing, it could be years, maybe even decades, before mass-produced, grass-based ethanol - called cellulosic ethanol - can replace corn-based ethanol.
"We have to do a lot to figure this out - how to grow (grass), harvest it and store it," said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., last weekend at Pheasant Fest. "The people who are pushing to build (grass-based) ethanol plants have no idea how hard this will be."
While the conservation community sees a bright future for energy from grass, they see the current rush for corn-ethanol plants as a potential disaster.
Last year, I attended a seminar by Michael Osterholm, the former Minnesota state epidemiologist and an avid trout angler, on the threats to southeast trout streams from proposed corn-based ethanol plants.
The seminar, the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo in Bloomington, was packed with anglers who listened raptly as Osterholm spelled out how plants would need large quantities of water from aquifers that feed trout streams.
The state and federal government's role in promoting corn-based ethanol is decidedly one-sided. Few politicians like to talk about the problems of returning idled grasslands to corn production; the impacts of water-sucking ethanol plants on groundwater supplies; or the fallacy that corn-based ethanol is a large gain in energy outputs. (It is very modest given the inputs of petroleum necessary to grow, harvest and ship corn and turn it into ethanol.)
The government's current rush to ramp up corn-based ethanol production is reminiscent of the years when the government paid to drain wetlands. The arguments used back then to publicly subsidize the draining of wetlands sound vaguely familiar today - it's good for the farmer, it's good for the economy, it is good for you and me.
Hunters and anglers are usually on the front edge of conservation and environmental movements. They're usually the first to point out the misuse of natural resources - especially when it involves the government. That's why trout anglers, pheasant and duck hunters are arguing for wise corn-ethanol policies.
The government doesn't want to listen to them, but the rest of us should. Since we're paying for corn ethanol with our taxes, we should demand a better return on our environmental investment.
Chris Niskanen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org