Is the ethanol mandate worse for the environment than fracking?

Michael Bastasch | Contributor

An in-depth investigation has revealed that a key Obama administration environmental policy is actually harming the environment, causing large amounts of toxic nitrogen fertilizer to seep into water supplies.

The Associated Press’s investigation into the federal ethanol mandate found that not only is it not living up to its expectations, but the policy is also causing widespread environmental degradation and harming drinking water.

On the other hand, oil and natural gas exploration using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is not damaging water quality. The Environmental Protection Agency has failed on three separate occasions to link fracking to drinking water contamination, and an Energy Department study said fracking is safe when done within regulatory constraints.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that [fracking fluid is] seeping into water supplies,” Charlie Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh found that after a year of monitoring wells in Western Pennsylvania, fracking fluids stayed nearly a mile below drinking water supplies after being used in the drilling process. Duke University researchers have also conducted numerous fracking studies, and none of them found chemical contamination in water supplies.

Yet the federal government’s biofuel mandate, the Renewable Fuel Standard, has raised corn prices and incentivized farmers to grow corn on environmentally fragile land once set aside for conservation. The AP reports that 5 million acres of conservation land has been put into service since President Obama took office.

Furthermore, the AP identified more than 1.2 million acres of valuable “virgin land” in Nebraska and the Dakotas alone that has been plowed into corn and soybean fields since 2006 — the year after the RFS was first signed into law.

More corn means more nitrogen fertilizer. This type of fertilizer is toxic when it seeps into drinking water and has been known to cause “blue baby” syndrome in children. Communities across the Midwest are feeling the effects of increased fertilizer use.

Nitrogen fertilizer use shot up by one billion pounds between 2005 and 2010, and the AP estimates that another billion pounds of fertilizer have been used for corn production since then. Nitrates travel down rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico where they boost algae growth, which consume huge amounts of oxygen when they die, making the sea zone unlivable for other creatures.

“On the one hand, the government is mandating ethanol use,” said Larry McKinney, the executive director of the Harte Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, “and it is unfortunately coming at the expense of the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Des Moines Water Works supplies drinking water to 500,000 people and is used to high nitrate levels in their water. DMWW gets its drinking water from one of two rivers — when nitrate levels are too high in one, they pull from the other. However, this year nitrate levels were high in both rivers, and workers with massive machinery had to work around the clock for three months over the summer to clean the water.

“This year, unfortunately the nitrate levels in both rivers were so high that it created an impossibility for us,” said Bill Stowe, DMWW’s general manager, adding that the government has done nothing to limit fertilizer use or regulate the drainage systems.

The Minnesota state government found that reducing the significantly high levels of nitrates found in drinking water would cost about $1 billion per year.

“We’re doing more to address water quality, but we are being overwhelmed by the increase in production pressure to plant more crops,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

“When you overdo anything, then it becomes dangerous. When you over categorize the benefits of something,” Drevna added. “It’s disheartening to see what’s happening to that land in Iowa.”

The Bush administration signed the ethanol mandate into law in 2005. The law was expanded in 2007 to require refiners to blend ever increasing amounts of ethanol throughout the next decade or so.

The law was used by then-presidential candidate Back Obama to win over voters in the Iowa Democratic caucus.

“If we’re going to get serious about investing in our energy future, we must give our family farmers and local ethanol producers a fair shot at success,” Obama said.

The Obama administration made ethanol a key feature in its environmental agenda, touting it as a way to wean the country off of oil and tackle global warming. The plan was backed by the ethanol industry, corn growers and some environmentalists.

It has since become a liability for the administration as the environmental consequences of artificially expanding corn production become apparent as well as the economic consequences of mandating ethanol blending.

“This is an ecological disaster,” said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group.

However, the ethanol industry is pushing back, arguing that the ethanol mandate is good for national security and good for consumers. Shifting their argument from fighting global warming to taking on “Big Oil”.

“For far too long Big Oil has run a campaign of misinformation and unsubstantiated attacks against the renewable fuels industry; it is high time consumers get a reality check from Big Oil’s propaganda designed to protect their market share and enable their monopolistic behavior,” says the pro-ethanol group Growth Energy.

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