Environmentalists Voice Ethanol Concerns

Published December 1, 2007

On September 20, Environmental Defense–an environmental activist group whose Web site encourages Americans to give up their gasoline-powered automobiles to curb global warming–issued a study raising concerns about gasoline’s most viable competitor: ethanol.

The group’s report, Potential Impacts of Biofuels Expansion on Natural Resources: A Case Study of the Ogallala Aquifer Region, claims the increasingly widespread use of ethanol as an automotive fuel is severely straining Midwestern water supplies.

Aquifer Threatened

According to the report, the ethanol blending process and the increased corn production necessary to meet growing ethanol demand could deplete up to 120 billion gallons of water each year from the Ogallala aquifer, an 800-mile underground reservoir supplying water from South Dakota to Texas.

Ethanol-related pressures on the aquifer could create long-term water and agriculture crises throughout the Midwest, Environmental Defense claims, because the aquifer feeds 20 percent of all the irrigated land in the United States.

“The Ogallala Aquifer supports the majority of irrigated agriculture in the southern Great Plains,” the report observes. “However, in recent decades it has experienced substantial water table declines in areas where rates of groundwater pumping have far exceeded rates of replacement. The region was also the center of Dust Bowl conditions in the 1930s.”

The report notes growing ethanol demand, created not by market forces but by government subsidies and mandates, could eventually result in an additional 120 billion gallons of water per year being taken away from the aquifer.

“This dramatic expansion of ethanol production has substantial implications for already strained water and grassland resources in the Ogallala Aquifer region,” the report asserts.

More Local Input Needed

The report notes ethanol plants use between three and six gallons of water to produce a single gallon of ethanol. Environmental Defense recommends giving local residents more say in determining whether ethanol plants are environmentally suitable for a particular location.

“Local and regional decision makers can also guide ethanol production toward more sustainable locations by making local approval of ethanol plant siting contingent on analyzing the impacts on water resources in areas of existing water scarcity,” states the report.

“The Ogallala region is experiencing rapid rates of ethanol production growth in areas where water resources are most under stress,” the report notes. “Areas of high depletion, defined as within 50 miles of aquifer zones where water tables have dropped by more than 10 feet between 1980 and 1996, currently contain only five ethanol plants with combined production of 71.5 million gallons per year.

“However, another nine plants with 639 million gallons per year capacity are currently under construction within the same areas, representing an almost 900 percent increase in the areas of highest water depletion. A proposed quadrupling of the U.S. mandate for the use of ethanol in fuel could drive further dramatic expansion,” the report concludes.

“Water depletion is just one of many negative environmental impacts caused by ethanol,” said Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “Not only is ethanol an expensive alternative to gasoline, it is also an environmentally suspect one.”

James Hoare ([email protected]) is an attorney practicing in Rochester, New York.

For more information …

The Environmental Defense report, Potential Impacts of Biofuels Expansion on Natural Resources: A Case Study of the Ogallala Aquifer Region, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #22233.