Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why Ethanol May Be Bad For The Chesapeake

Speaking of alternative fuels with problems, it appears that a boom in ethanol production may set back efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. Currently, the favored form of ethanol is produced from corn. The resulting rise in corn prices has led more farmers to plant more corn at the expense of other crops. A study of agriculture in the Chesapeake watershed found that corn production is already growing.

In the Chesapeake area, according to the study, the drawback to ethanol's boom is that more farmers have planted cornfields to take advantage of the prices. Corn harvests are expected to increase 12 percent in Maryland this year and 8 percent in Virginia, according to a forecast in March from the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Although the spike is expected to be greater in Mississippi, where forecasters predict a 179 percent jump, across the vast Chesapeake watershed -- extending from southern Virginia to Cooperstown, N.Y. -- smaller shifts can add up. The authors of the study released yesterday forecast that over the next five years, the area of land newly planted with corn could be as much as 1 million acres, four times the size of Fairfax County.


More cornfields could be trouble, the study warned, because corn generally requires more fertilizer than such crops as soybeans or hay. When it rains, some of this fertilizer washes downstream, and it brings such pollutants as nitrogen and phosphorus, which feed unnatural algae blooms in the bay. These algae consume the oxygen that fish, crabs and other creatures need to breathe, creating the Chesapeake's infamous dead zones.
The study argues for funding to create buffer zones to mitigate increased runoff. Local representatives are trying to get this into the agriculturual bill that will be voted through Congress in the next couple weeks.