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Published on April 3rd, 2008 | by Benjamin Jones

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Is Ethanol Production Fueling the Size of the Dead Zone?

Photo Source: marinebiology.edu

[social_buttons] In case you didn’t know, the “dead zone” isn’t just a novel by Steven King or an old TV show, it’s an area about the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico that during the summer months is incapable of supporting sea life. The dead zone is created when fertilizer run off promote algae growth, which in turn throws off the oceans equilibrium by using all the available oxygen, killing everything else. So, good for algae perhaps, but bad for the sea life in general.

Carectomy recently reported that ethanol production for passenger vehicles could be responsible for a growth in this dead zone. In their words:

Corn is the biggest culprit in creating these environments, and now that the U.S. is looking to biofuels as a solution to its energy needs, the problem’s only getting worse. Bush signed legislation at the end of 2007 that will triple the amount of corn ethanol produced over the next several years.

More after the jump!

Because corn is the crop most used for ethanol in the US (other countries, such as Brazil, use sugar cane), it is clear that corn will have an adverse affect on the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem as the fertilizer heavy crop’s run off travels down the Mississippi and dumps itself into the ocean.

Carectomy goes on to give a scathing overview of how ethanol is the wrong direction for the US and the world, as it solves no problems, but simply makes it seems like problems have been solved. While I would heartily agree with them on many counts, there is much more to ethanol than meets the eye. Political pressures have made most US ethanol production corn based thus far, but other technologies have a promising future.

Cellulosic ethanol, for example, can use any plant matter and turn it into ethanol. That means that food waste, grasses, and just about anything that’s a plant could be made into ethanol. With this technology extremely efficient ways of producing ethanol with environmentally friendly crops could be used, therefore lowering the impact ethanol has on the environment.

With that said, the dead zone is truly an alarming spectacle, and if the US wants to continue to hurdle towards an ethanol economy, it’s going to have to reform its ways and “kick the corn habit” as much as it needs to kick the oil habit.

Related Posts:

Which is Worse: Exporting $1 Billion Per Week or Growing Fuel?

World’s First Commercially Viable Cellulosic Ethanol Plant Online 2009

Ethanol Brings Gas Prices Down, Saves Consumers Money

University Funding Pulled For Anti-Biofuel Research

Farmers Invest In Diesel-Producing Trees

Need a New Car? Nope, Just a New Engine!




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About the Author

Benjamin Jones is a student of Dartmouth College and co-founder of EcoModder.com and writer at CollegeVegan.com. He is double majoring in Japanese and Linguistics, and is most interested in Sociolinguistics and Anthropology in Japan.



  • http://www.envirovore.com Heather M

    Manure + fertilizer = Gulf Dead Zone. Check out the main points of the USGS report at Envirovore:

    http://envirovore.com/content/view/24/1/

  • http://www.envirovore.com Heather M

    Manure + fertilizer = Gulf Dead Zone. Check out the main points of the USGS report at Envirovore:

    http://envirovore.com/content/view/24/1/

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  • tech

    Hmm sounds like we should use HEMP.

  • tech

    Hmm sounds like we should use HEMP.

  • James Lord

    so all the grass clippings collected could be turned to fuel, what a concept, what about trash too methane, at our local dump they burn it…..

  • James Lord

    so all the grass clippings collected could be turned to fuel, what a concept, what about trash too methane, at our local dump they burn it…..

  • http://www.666health.com/ kigsd

    Manure + fertilizer = Gulf Dead Zone. Check out the main points of the USGS report at Envirovore:

  • http://www.666health.com/ kigsd

    Manure + fertilizer = Gulf Dead Zone. Check out the main points of the USGS report at Envirovore:

  • http://www.666health.com/ kigsd

    Manure + fertilizer = Gulf Dead Zone. Check out the main points of the USGS report at Envirovore:

  • KFC

    I’m a bit skeptical of the blame lying solely on ethanol production for a few reasons having to do with my research.

    We’ve been finding in the piedmont area that erosion from stream banks has been increasing turbidity in the Chesapeake bay. I’m a little bit curious about the impact of post-settlement water-power and the legacy sediments associated with them has here.

    In fact we’ve been measuring our stream bank sediments to contain a SHIT-TON of nitrogen (via Elemental combustion), as most of these pond-deposited sediments were once upland farm soils from the 1800s.

    While I don’t deny that there probably is a correlation there, there is probably more to the story than this article implies, and I’m curious to find out what will happen.

  • KFC

    I’m a bit skeptical of the blame lying solely on ethanol production for a few reasons having to do with my research.

    We’ve been finding in the piedmont area that erosion from stream banks has been increasing turbidity in the Chesapeake bay. I’m a little bit curious about the impact of post-settlement water-power and the legacy sediments associated with them has here.

    In fact we’ve been measuring our stream bank sediments to contain a SHIT-TON of nitrogen (via Elemental combustion), as most of these pond-deposited sediments were once upland farm soils from the 1800s.

    While I don’t deny that there probably is a correlation there, there is probably more to the story than this article implies, and I’m curious to find out what will happen.

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  • Ted

    The dump in Eugene/Springfield Oregon they collect it.

  • Ted

    The dump in Eugene/Springfield Oregon they collect it.

  • Ted

    The dump in Eugene/Springfield Oregon they collect it.

  • Coastman3

    Corn production is supposed to be down 8% in US in 2008.

  • Coastman3

    Corn production is supposed to be down 8% in US in 2008.

  • Coastman3

    Corn production is supposed to be down 8% in US in 2008.

  • Matthew

    Why not harvest the algae for biofuel?

  • Matthew

    Why not harvest the algae for biofuel?

  • Matthew

    Why not harvest the algae for biofuel?

  • http://energytech.wordpress.com Mike

    How much of this runoff comes from residential yards trying to have a green lawn?

  • http://energytech.wordpress.com Mike

    How much of this runoff comes from residential yards trying to have a green lawn?

  • http://energytech.wordpress.com Mike

    How much of this runoff comes from residential yards trying to have a green lawn?

  • Cameron

    The corn is used MOSTLY for High Fructose Corn Syrup so why is the SPIN here to put the blame on ethanol?

    Take a walk down any grocery store isle these days and try to find a product that doesn’t have corn in it.

  • Cameron

    The corn is used MOSTLY for High Fructose Corn Syrup so why is the SPIN here to put the blame on ethanol?

    Take a walk down any grocery store isle these days and try to find a product that doesn’t have corn in it.

  • http://www.bradstinyworld.com/ Brad Hart

    The biggest problem with biofuels in general is there is so little in the way of infrastructure to produce and distribute it. We really need to buck up and get that in place or we are really going to be screwed in the next ten or fifteen years when oil hits two hundred bucks a barrel.

    As far corn goes we have known all along it was a sucky crop for biofuel, but the fact is until you can convince people oil really will hit $200 a barrel in the foreseeable future no one wants to grow crops you can’t eat, smoke or turn into drinkable liquor. Hell we have known for over a century how to make biodiesel, in fact diesel started out as a biofuel.

  • http://www.bradstinyworld.com/ Brad Hart

    The biggest problem with biofuels in general is there is so little in the way of infrastructure to produce and distribute it. We really need to buck up and get that in place or we are really going to be screwed in the next ten or fifteen years when oil hits two hundred bucks a barrel.

    As far corn goes we have known all along it was a sucky crop for biofuel, but the fact is until you can convince people oil really will hit $200 a barrel in the foreseeable future no one wants to grow crops you can’t eat, smoke or turn into drinkable liquor. Hell we have known for over a century how to make biodiesel, in fact diesel started out as a biofuel.

  • http://www.bradstinyworld.com/ Brad Hart

    The biggest problem with biofuels in general is there is so little in the way of infrastructure to produce and distribute it. We really need to buck up and get that in place or we are really going to be screwed in the next ten or fifteen years when oil hits two hundred bucks a barrel.

    As far corn goes we have known all along it was a sucky crop for biofuel, but the fact is until you can convince people oil really will hit $200 a barrel in the foreseeable future no one wants to grow crops you can’t eat, smoke or turn into drinkable liquor. Hell we have known for over a century how to make biodiesel, in fact diesel started out as a biofuel.

  • Kennyyak

    Ethanol is not the answer for fuel anyways. Everyone thinks that they are doing good but this is just the opposite. Working at a restaurant in the last year or so, flour prices have tripled, cheese prices have trippled, wheat prices, everything is going up since farmers are growing corn instead of the alternatives. Ethanol is cheaper, but your paying for it in other places. Diesel is still a better alternative, there are tons of cars in Europe that get 3 times the milage as the American versions, and they run extremely clean. But wait, someone isn’t allowing this cars to be sold in the US, strange isn’t it?

  • Kennyyak

    Ethanol is not the answer for fuel anyways. Everyone thinks that they are doing good but this is just the opposite. Working at a restaurant in the last year or so, flour prices have tripled, cheese prices have trippled, wheat prices, everything is going up since farmers are growing corn instead of the alternatives. Ethanol is cheaper, but your paying for it in other places. Diesel is still a better alternative, there are tons of cars in Europe that get 3 times the milage as the American versions, and they run extremely clean. But wait, someone isn’t allowing this cars to be sold in the US, strange isn’t it?

  • Kennyyak

    Ethanol is not the answer for fuel anyways. Everyone thinks that they are doing good but this is just the opposite. Working at a restaurant in the last year or so, flour prices have tripled, cheese prices have trippled, wheat prices, everything is going up since farmers are growing corn instead of the alternatives. Ethanol is cheaper, but your paying for it in other places. Diesel is still a better alternative, there are tons of cars in Europe that get 3 times the milage as the American versions, and they run extremely clean. But wait, someone isn’t allowing this cars to be sold in the US, strange isn’t it?

  • http://www.geologyjoe.blogspot.com GeologyJoe

    Not only are the fertilizers killing the ocean life the need for more farm land is leading to HUGE deforestation. TIME magazine just published a good article about it.

  • http://www.geologyjoe.blogspot.com GeologyJoe

    Not only are the fertilizers killing the ocean life the need for more farm land is leading to HUGE deforestation. TIME magazine just published a good article about it.

  • http://www.geologyjoe.blogspot.com GeologyJoe

    Not only are the fertilizers killing the ocean life the need for more farm land is leading to HUGE deforestation. TIME magazine just published a good article about it.

  • Jeffrey

    The folks at Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network and others are working on this problem. Support these groups. They have a working plan.

  • Jeffrey

    The folks at Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network and others are working on this problem. Support these groups. They have a working plan.

  • Ugly American

    Ethanol is only made out of the part of the corn that is used to make corn syrup.

    All the protein, vitamins and minerals are preserved – fit to eat by humans and animals.

    The beverage industry hates ethanol because it makes their corn syrup cost more. You know that crap produced by chemical treatment and GMO enzymes that clogs up your liver that they put in everything from soda to ‘health’ drinks? Well, everyone should realize that the beverage industry is the largest advertisers world wide. And the media is in the business of selling advertising.

    As for the polution, the industrial scale agricultural polution is the result of the US trying to feed the world. We are the largest exporter of sustance food – not wine, not caviar but the rice, wheat and corn that most people in the world need to get by.

    Should we cut them off?

    There’s countries that have been huge importers of food for over 100 years and yet they’ve done nothing to reduce their populations to sustainable levels.

  • Ugly American

    Ethanol is only made out of the part of the corn that is used to make corn syrup.

    All the protein, vitamins and minerals are preserved – fit to eat by humans and animals.

    The beverage industry hates ethanol because it makes their corn syrup cost more. You know that crap produced by chemical treatment and GMO enzymes that clogs up your liver that they put in everything from soda to ‘health’ drinks? Well, everyone should realize that the beverage industry is the largest advertisers world wide. And the media is in the business of selling advertising.

    As for the polution, the industrial scale agricultural polution is the result of the US trying to feed the world. We are the largest exporter of sustance food – not wine, not caviar but the rice, wheat and corn that most people in the world need to get by.

    Should we cut them off?

    There’s countries that have been huge importers of food for over 100 years and yet they’ve done nothing to reduce their populations to sustainable levels.

  • Ugly American

    Ethanol is only made out of the part of the corn that is used to make corn syrup.

    All the protein, vitamins and minerals are preserved – fit to eat by humans and animals.

    The beverage industry hates ethanol because it makes their corn syrup cost more. You know that crap produced by chemical treatment and GMO enzymes that clogs up your liver that they put in everything from soda to ‘health’ drinks? Well, everyone should realize that the beverage industry is the largest advertisers world wide. And the media is in the business of selling advertising.

    As for the polution, the industrial scale agricultural polution is the result of the US trying to feed the world. We are the largest exporter of sustance food – not wine, not caviar but the rice, wheat and corn that most people in the world need to get by.

    Should we cut them off?

    There’s countries that have been huge importers of food for over 100 years and yet they’ve done nothing to reduce their populations to sustainable levels.

  • Uncle B

    Oslo, Norway, bio-digests its sewage to make fuel to run its buses, and a fertilizer/soil improver, for depleted farmlands! Americans for the bigger part Shiite all over the place! Unregulated, and seeping into city drinking water supplies! Goddammit, Yankee Doodle! You can do better, can’t you? Even Norway, run by women, does better? goddammit! Wanna hear another one? We take good gasoline, dump ethanol into it, spoiling its efficiency for our gasoline-specific engines, giving us poorer performance and pin stars on our chests for it! Good ethanol belongs in ethanol-specific engines where it outperforms gasoline by a long shot! Got time for one more? We overlooked scrubbed Euro-diesels altogether! A full 40 % more efficient, no stinky, and save our economy by reducing foreign oil imports! All for a handful of cheap kayoline clay scrubbers, as used in Canadian Mines every day! And, we stuck our heads in the sand on this one,and took it up the ass! Exxon didn’t even supply free grease, and it will not be painless, especially while oil prices rise exponentially, and the dollar falls like a stone! Goddammit! Got time for one more? We are doing nothing to develop algae based bio diesel, a potentially economy saving source of 40% more efficient, non-carcinogenic diesel oil for our cars! We wait, for governments, for “Big Oil” for “Changing Times” to solve the energy crisis, and intend the easiest way out: Nuclear if necessary! all the while better ideas go the wayside and our quality of life with them! Not this time Yankee Doodle, the OPEC boys are greedy , hungry like sharks, and eat Yankee Doodle Dandies for breakfast, especially “fatted calf”, air conditioned well fed, hifgh oil content ones! Goddammit!

  • Uncle B

    Oslo, Norway, bio-digests its sewage to make fuel to run its buses, and a fertilizer/soil improver, for depleted farmlands! Americans for the bigger part Shiite all over the place! Unregulated, and seeping into city drinking water supplies! Goddammit, Yankee Doodle! You can do better, can’t you? Even Norway, run by women, does better? goddammit! Wanna hear another one? We take good gasoline, dump ethanol into it, spoiling its efficiency for our gasoline-specific engines, giving us poorer performance and pin stars on our chests for it! Good ethanol belongs in ethanol-specific engines where it outperforms gasoline by a long shot! Got time for one more? We overlooked scrubbed Euro-diesels altogether! A full 40 % more efficient, no stinky, and save our economy by reducing foreign oil imports! All for a handful of cheap kayoline clay scrubbers, as used in Canadian Mines every day! And, we stuck our heads in the sand on this one,and took it up the ass! Exxon didn’t even supply free grease, and it will not be painless, especially while oil prices rise exponentially, and the dollar falls like a stone! Goddammit! Got time for one more? We are doing nothing to develop algae based bio diesel, a potentially economy saving source of 40% more efficient, non-carcinogenic diesel oil for our cars! We wait, for governments, for “Big Oil” for “Changing Times” to solve the energy crisis, and intend the easiest way out: Nuclear if necessary! all the while better ideas go the wayside and our quality of life with them! Not this time Yankee Doodle, the OPEC boys are greedy , hungry like sharks, and eat Yankee Doodle Dandies for breakfast, especially “fatted calf”, air conditioned well fed, hifgh oil content ones! Goddammit!

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