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

November 16, 2007

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.

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