PI Original Mose Buchele Tuesday March 25th, 2008, 2:19pm

On Biodiesel, It's Time To Look Beyond Corn

The argument that biodiesel is the answer to our national energy crisis took another hit this month when the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reported that the alternative fuel is having a disastrous effect in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizers used to grow corn ...

The argument that biodiesel is the answer to our national energy crisis took another hit this month when the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reported that the alternative fuel is having a disastrous effect in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizers used to grow corn for biodiesel drain into the Mississippi River, eventually finding their way into the Gulf where they encourage colossal algae "blooms." These explosions of algae deprive the sea of oxygen with horrific results:

This condition, called hypoxia, prevents animals that depend on oxygen, such as fish or shrimp, from living in those waters. In recent years, this so-called "dead zone" has grown to the size of New Jersey — about 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) — each summer.

While the devastation is occurring about a 1000 miles away, corn-based biodiesel is an Illinois issue. The state has long been one of the nation's biggest corn producers and has recently ramped up its production to meet national goals on biodiesel production. In the last two years, the corn belt has produced more of its trademark crop than any time since World War II. And that means more and more damaging runoff into the Mississippi.

The news about the negative evironmental effects of all this biodiesel production has been treated with outright glee in some conservative circles. Anti-environmentalists at the Illinois Review have pointed to setbacks in the search for environmentally-friendly fuel sources as proof that the U.S. should do everything from drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to build more nuclear power plants (and let's not forget the so-called "Clean Coal" technology).

But before they declare victory against biodiesel technology, the strip-mine crowd might want to remember that there are other biodiesel sources that don't require the use of harmful fertilizers:

Bruce Dale of Michigan State University, who has worked on the development of ethanol from cellulose (for example, grasses, wood chips and crop waste) for the past 30 years says that the industry is increasingly moving away from corn to cellulosic ethanol because it is more energy efficient and more environmentally-friendly, but that "without corn-based ethanol, we would have had a much more difficult time in moving cellulosic ethanol forward."

If farmers grew other biodiesel crops like switch grass or even certain trees, runoff to the Mississippi river would be greatly mitigated.

It will take a great amount of political will to encourage the growth of other biodiesel crops in the corn belt, as federal subsidies aimed at the crop provide heavy incentives for farmers. But if policymakers can encourage biodiesel-friendly crops, it would be a great step forward in our quest for environmentally friendly energy independence.

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