Ethanol, the Aral Sea, and the Looming American Environmental Disaster

Consider the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea—once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world—is now a vast wasteland that has shrunk to less than 25% of its former size.

The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan (formerly part of the Soviet Union) stands as a tragic monument to environmental carnage that frequently occurs under socialism. How could this have happened? Was it a change in weather? No, the destruction of the Aral Sea was the consequence of the Soviet decision to divert waters that flowed into the Aral Sea for farming.

With the lessons of the Aral Sea in mind, let us reflect on the looming environmental catastrophe that is beginning to build in the United States. Like the Aral Sea disaster, our own central planners think they know best how water should be used. In our case, it is for the production of ethanol.

Ethanol is a fuel that would not exist in the United States without billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies. Robert Bryce, writing in Slate, clearly explains why. Simply put, the production of ethanol uses more energy than it produces. Bryce writes:

David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains…

In addition to their findings on corn, they determined that making ethanol from switch grass requires 50 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol yields, wood biomass 57 percent more, and sunflowers 118 percent more. The best yield comes from soybeans, but they, too, are a net loser, requiring 27 percent more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced. In other words, more ethanol production will increase America’s total energy consumption, not decrease it.

Ok, but let’s face it—we’ve all been overloaded with reports of government boondoggles that benefit some at the expense of all. Why should we be especially concerned about ethanol?

Corn is a plant that needs a lot of fertilizer. The excess fertilizer is poisoning aquifers in the Corn Belt states. Nitrates that come from the runoff are especially toxic to children and pregnant woman.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. All throughout the Corn Belt, ethanol plants have been opening. Besides polluting the ground water they are draining aquifers at alarming rates.

Here is just one example. The water aquifer in southwestern Minnesota is mostly ancient clay sea beds. The region doesn’t get a lot of rainfall; and in any case, recharging clay aquifers is not a process that nature easily accomplishes. In Granite Falls, Minnesota, one ethanol plant, Granite Falls Energy, drained the town aquifer by nearly half in less than a year.

Let’s be clear here. Without the billions of dollars of subsidies paid each year for corn and ethanol production, there would have been no Granite Falls Energy. Nor would there have been any other ethanol plants draining aquifers in states such as Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa.

How long it will take for an environmental catastrophe of the size of the Aral Sea to occur is not easily predicted. Such a disaster in the United States is beyond our imagination. Although it may be beyond our imagination, that is not very reassuring. We can be sure of one thing—no country is immune from the consequences of the follies of socialism.


4 Responses to Ethanol, the Aral Sea, and the Looming American Environmental Disaster

  1. louparis says:

    Perhaps there is another element for the cost equation for producing biofuels: run the cost equation using solar and wind energy renewable sources.
    Lou Paris

  2. Lou,

    Good question, but we can be sure of one thing–subsidizing ethanol drains capital away from alternative energy sources.

  3. For more information on how ethanol (and biodiesel) is subsidized, and how much it is subsidized, visit our website, where you can find an in-depth report from 2006 and an update released last month:

  4. louparis says:

    Let’s face it, the environmental problems are man made and due to our extreme materialistic attitude in life. Why three TVs per household? Why 3 cars per household? All this consumes energy in its production. Why do we need a ride-around lawnmower for 500 square feet of lawn? The list can be almost endless and keeps growing.
    Conspicuous consumption is rapant. For eample: The average serving per customer in an American restaurant is more than double the portion size in Europe and the rest of the world – and half the portion goes into the garbage, or into a “doggie Bag” first and then into the garbage. Restaurant owners say that by reducing serving size they would reduce their customer base. Try it and the truth will be otherwise.
    How much water do you think could be saved by having to grow only enough produce to serve, and not garbagize, the tings the average American restaurant and household puts on the table?
    I think you will find, with proper study, that most of the reduction in water tables throughout the US and elsewhere is mainly due to the change in climate and the gradual increase in average annual temperature. But don’t worry, if the glaciers on land continue to melt at the current rate, there will be plenty of water where water is now scarce – in the lowlands of the coasts in North and South America, Europe and Asia. Then the problem will be raising the capital needed for desalinization plants.
    One problem and its solution has, as in all physics, a counter reaction. My fear is that we have too many non-studied “reactionaries” offering up too many problems and no reasonable or feasible solutions.

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