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Searching for alternatives to petroleum, progressive Americans are agruing for more exploitation of "home-grown" fuels like ethanol and biodiesel.  But the corn and soy that can fill our tanks are part of what's emptying the Gulf of Mexico.

Every Memorial Day weekend, in the town of Morgan City, Louisiana, residents and visitors come together for the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, a celebration of the region's two great economic drivers.  Though the festival's name may seem oxymoronic, the two industries coexist rather peacefully along Lousisana's Gulf Coast. Oil rigs act as artificial reefs, providing habitat for many species.  Advances in navigation aids provided to oil service boats benefit fishing and shrimping vessels as well.  

Except for the occasional spill or pipeline rupture, shrimp and petroleum can indeed celebrate together.  Despite early suspicions, it isn't the oil industry that's causing the 6,000 sq. mi. hypoxic "dead zone" every summer in the Gulf.  So, then, what is?

Pull on the wet suit and let's take a dip below the fold.

While I wish I had a DaVinci Code-like mystery that takes two hours and reading somebody else's book to decipher, the answer is fairly simple and has been known for years:  agricultural runoff.  Excessive use of fertilizers far upstream cause massive algal blooms in the Gulf and, when the algae die, the water becomes starved for oxygen.  Fish and shrimp must migrate or die.

An article in the April 17 Times-Picayune offers a very complete overview of the history and current state of the dead zone, including the alarming news that a plan signed by nine states, two tribes and the federal government in 2001 to reduce the size of the dead zone isn't working, and the problem is getting worse, not better.  

The article is a reccommended read, as well as the Ohio State University report on the dead zone, but for those short for time, here are the money graphs:

Meanwhile, a new study has traced almost 80 percent of the nitrogen-based fertilizers largely responsible for the low-oxygen zone to a relatively small number of agricultural counties in the Midwest that are heavily subsidized by the federal government to grow their crops.

The study from the Environmental Working Group in Washington says conservation programs intended to offset the runoff of fertilizers from farms have come up woefully short. In some of the counties highlighted by the study, the group said, for every $500 that goes into subsidy programs that could increase fertilizer use, a scant $1 is spent on conservation programs.

Ethanol and biodiesel hold some promise to help reduce America's dependence on imported petroleum, but the problems inherent in how they are produced and processed must be addressed before more government subsidies are shoveled into the "biofuel" dream.

Much has been written here and elsewhere on the massive pollution and water consumption problems that plague ethanol production.  The limitations of transporting ethanol have also been addressed. But I've yet to hear much discussion on the threat to Gulf fisheries that will result from increased production of commodity crops in the Mississippi/Missouri drainage system.  

Until and unless there are real, cooperative efforts to reduce nitrogen runoff from subsidized agriculture upstream, the "green fuel revolution" guarantees the growth of the Gulf dead zone and America's "black catch."

"You can't do just one thing."
- Campbell's Law of Everything

Originally posted to Crashing Vor on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 01:39 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips w/ remoulade sauce (19+ / 0-)
    I've got to run out right now, but am anxious to hear your thoughts.  In a bit. . .

    Nanotechnology can take atmospheric CO2 and make diamonds and fresh air.

    by Crashing Vor on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 01:40:15 PM PDT

  •  I'll take my heavy metals with remoulade (6+ / 0-)

    Every time I eat Gulf shrimp, I think of all those delicious little sea roaches running around on the sludgy bottom, where the pollutants settle ...

    And when I went camping along the Gulf, I was staggered to see the heavy daily misting that the waterside campgrounds got from the pesticide truck. The bugs were still winning, but estimating the cumulative toxin load going directly into the estuaries made my blood run cold.

    The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function -- Edward Teller.

    by lgmcp on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 01:43:51 PM PDT

    •  Not to mention to toxins... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Carnacki, cookiebear, TexDem, lgmcp

      ...flowing through your arteries after the pesticide truck appeared.

      •  Great scene in 'The Liar's Club' (6+ / 0-)

        by Mary Karr ...

        She describes how the neighborhood kids would run a "slow race" behind the DDT truck, when she was a child in Staretown Texas. They'd compete to see who could ride their bikes the longest behind the slow-moving sprayer.  Apparently the dizzying fumes made them laugh their heads off.

        My mother swears she and her siblings played the exact same game.  

        Me?  I zipped the tent, corked the wine, jumped in the truck, and left for two hours!

        The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function -- Edward Teller.

        by lgmcp on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 01:58:43 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well, I thought we were the only nut jobs (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          lgmcp

          that chased the "skitter sprayer" truck.  

          Lordy be, during the summer time (late 1950's)lots of us underprivileged project kids chased the truck all the way down our street breathing in the toxic fumes.  I can't imagine now what was so fascinating about that truck, nor what motivated us to do that.  Apparently, our parents didn't put much thought into it either because I don't remember anyone telling us NOT to do what we were doing.

          Sorry to hear other kids thought it was fun to ingest that mess.  Just shows how little it took to excite us--or--how really boring life was back then.

          At least two of the "skitter sprayer" truck brigade are now deceased.

    •  I have eaten so much Gulf seafood in my (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lgmcp

      life that I can take my own temperature without the aid of a thermometer.

      Within the last few years, I find that my memory cells don't function as they used to, which might be the result of premature "A" mucking up those cells, but more likely, it is the result of all the mercury I've ingested over the years.  

      I have contended for many years that 90% of Alabamistanians are mad as hatters because of the dumping of pollutants into our rivers, streams, and gulf.

      Regarding the "skitter sprayers":  Way out here in "plumb nearly," the trucks come by far more often than I like.  Whenever they come by, I cringe and run for the house, taking my two smaller dogs with me.  Unfortunately, the overweight (130+ lbs.)German Shepherd is not house broken and just has to suffer.  What particularly irks me is when the truck decides to stop nearby and continues to spray his load.  

      When we first moved here, we had a large variety of bees.  Anymore I seldom see even the more common kind of bees.

      The people, animals, sea life, and beneficial insects are the ones most at risk because of these pollutants.  The mosquitoes, red ants, and roaches just smile, get fatter from the spray, and keep reproducing.

  •  Drive yellow is a white elephant, in that (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lgmcp

    it takes approximately the same amount of energy to produce corn based ethanol than is derived.

    17. Ne5

    In chess you may hit a man when he's down -- Irving Chernev, on Przepiorka v. Prokes, Budapest, 1929

    by Spud1 on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 01:46:18 PM PDT

    •  This issue is highly disputed ... (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cookiebear, Spud1, lgmcp, esquimaux, possum

      ...with studies showing a wide variation of net energy gained from corn ethanol, with recent research showing corn ethanol producing 2x as much energy as is consumed to 1.23x as much to David Pimenthal's extremely controversial negative ratio.

      •  Yes I'd like to see more consensus (0+ / 0-)

        and corroboration on the ethanol cost/benefit.  

        Still, we KNOW that in general our agricultural practices are far from sustainable.  

        The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function -- Edward Teller.

        by lgmcp on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 02:04:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I agree with M Blades that it is indeed (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          lgmcp, possum

          much in dispute, but it is not a cost/benefit ratio, it is an energy in/energy out ratio. If one views ethanol as a replacement for fossil fuel, then cost has nothing to do with it. Cheers.

          17. Ne5

          In chess you may hit a man when he's down -- Irving Chernev, on Przepiorka v. Prokes, Budapest, 1929

          by Spud1 on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 02:11:34 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Various ratios (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Meteor Blades, Crashing Vor

            Let me see if I'm following here...  I suppose part of why your distinction might be helpful is that costs are mutable, with more effective practices, economies of scale, etc, whereas the physics of thermal content are not?  The number of thermal units theoretically available from combustion isn't going to alter.

            But I thought the negative ratio came from factoring in things like tractor fuel and fertilise-making and so on.  Surely those factors are hard to hold constant?  

            The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function -- Edward Teller.

            by lgmcp on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 02:21:43 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Units of energy, not cost. I think they (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              lgmcp

              have used price as the "value" for want of a better figure.

              17. Ne5

              In chess you may hit a man when he's down -- Irving Chernev, on Przepiorka v. Prokes, Budapest, 1929

              by Spud1 on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 02:49:20 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

            •  More than BTUs to compare (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              lgmcp
              From the last link:

              "[The [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] has cracked down in recent years on a lot of Midwestern ethanol plants for excessive levels of carbon monoxide, methanol, toluene and volatile organic compounds, some of which are known to cause cancer."

              I don't have numbers, but I'm curious to know the apples-to-apples comparison of refining petro to cooking ethanol in producing volatiles.

              Nanotechnology can take atmospheric CO2 and make diamonds and fresh air.

              by Crashing Vor on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 04:00:13 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

          •  what kind of replacement (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            lgmcp, Crashing Vor

            for gasoline requires petroleum derivitives to generate?

            (in the form of pesticides and fertilizer)?

            Not a very good one, it seems.

            While the energy input and output ratio may be debatable, it seems obvious that you will not replace fossil fuels with ethanol blends.  That is not sustainable.  See also (again) lgmcp's comment.

            Why does Shrub never talk about his first wife, Reality? He divorced her with prejudice and all of his alimony checks to her have bounced.

            by nepolon on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 03:11:40 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  And oil? (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Spud1, elkhunter, lgmcp, Crashing Vor

      The actual cost of oil includes all of the military expenditures required to "secure" the oil fields.

  •  The Ohio study you link above (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    justme, lgmcp, smokeymonkey, Crashing Vor

    makes quite clear that these problems are not beyond our abilities to address, merely beyond our will. Controlling runoff can be as simple as planting trees or something else on terraced ground. The big problem is refusal to see the connections.

    •  A key point (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      melvin, lgmcp
      and thank you for making it.  Another is that many growers fertilize to the redline to eke every last bushel from an acre.  If farmers--particularly commodity growers--weren't so squeezed, over-fertilization might not be so rampant to begin with.

      Nanotechnology can take atmospheric CO2 and make diamonds and fresh air.

      by Crashing Vor on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 03:49:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The interconnectedness of all things (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lgmcp, smokeymonkey

    We're constantly reminded that you can't just look next door for the source of problems.  

    In this case, there seems to be an obvious answer: stop supporting the farming techniques that require this huge deployment of fertilizer.  There are alternatives.  That may mean reduced yields in some areas, but it doesn't mean that the corporate farms using these techniques have the right to increase their own wealth by destroying resources half a continent away.


    Theobromine -- does that come in chocolate?

    by Mark Sumner on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 02:43:06 PM PDT

  •  Monsanto? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lgmcp

    I keep thinking that Monsanto's patented Franken-Corn comes into play here somewhere but I don't know if I'm just being paranoid.

    •  You bet (0+ / 0-)

      While they can also engineer for nice things, like plant vigor and golden rice, mostly it seems that instead they choose to engineer for plants to tolerate ever more massive amounts of Roundup.  

      THAT's gotta be great for the waterways, and ultimately for the oceans.  

      The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function -- Edward Teller.

      by lgmcp on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 03:08:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The Great Flaw of the Clean Water Act (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lgmcp, Crashing Vor

    Is the exemption for agricultural run-off and this diary is just one graphic illustration of that flaw.

    Whereas most entities (public or private) that take water from a source (whether surface or groundwater) and want to release it later must get a "discharge permit" to do so under the CWA, agricultural run-off is completely exempt with the disastrous consequences we are seeing.  When one considers that MOST use of fresh water in America does not go to drinking water or industrial uses but to agriculture, the magnitude of the flaw becomes apparent.

    When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and the purity of its heart. - Emerson

    by foolrex on Wed Jun 28, 2006 at 03:48:29 PM PDT

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