Ethanol to sap Midwest water supplies
The ethanol fallacy, which we have spelled out repeatedly here on AutoRacing1.com, just keeps getting worse as this Wall Street Journal article points out.
If the Senate's new "renewable fuels" mandate becomes law, get ready for a giant slurping sound as Midwest water supplies are siphoned off to slake Big Ethanol. House and Senate negotiators are preparing for an energy-bill conference, and if the Senate's language prevails, America's economy will be forced to consume more than five times current ethanol production.
Heavily subsidized and absurdly inefficient, corn-based ethanol has already driven up food prices. But the Senate's plan to increase production to 36 billion gallons by 2022, from less than seven billion today, will place even greater pressure on farm-belt aquifers.
Ethanol plants consume roughly four gallons of water to produce each gallon of fuel, but that's only a fraction of ethanol's total water habit. Cornell ecology professor David Pimentel says that when you count the water needed to grow the corn, one gallon of ethanol requires a staggering 1,700 gallons of H2O. Backers of the Senate bill say that less-thirsty technologies are just around the corner, which is what we've been hearing for years.
Some corn-producing regions are already scrapping over dwindling supply. The Journal's Joe Barrett recently reported that Kansas is threatening to sue neighboring Nebraska for consuming more than its share of the Republican River. The Grand Forks Herald reports local opposition to a proposed ethanol plant in Erskine, Minnesota, with anti-refinery yard signs sprouting up and residents concerned about well water. Backers of a proposed plant in Jamestown, North Dakota, recently withdrew their application when it became clear that the plant's million-gallon-a-day appetite would drain too much from a local aquifer. In Wisconsin, new ethanol plants are encountering opposition in Sparta and Milton.
"There are going to be conflicts," says Iowa State hydrogeologist Bill Simpkins, "and there are going to be lawsuits." Even in Iowa, which enjoys abundant rainfall, there are no guarantees that supply can meet the new demand. "The problem is we don't know enough about some of these areas to say whether people can pump out a lot more water," Mr. Simpkins says.
The political fights could get ugly, because plants tend to pop up near cities, not necessarily near the biggest water supplies. Ethanol needs a rail system to be distributed, and ethanol factories save money on boiler maintenance when they get the same kind of high-quality water that humans prefer. In states like Iowa, where ethanol plants are considered agricultural projects deserving of preferential treatment, ethanol can also muscle out other business uses.