January 3, 2008 6:38 AM

No good deed goes unpunished

Ethanol stirring coastal concerns: As production rises, so does the threat of the Gulf’s dead zone

The recent passage of the mammoth energy bill could have unintended consequences for the Gulf of Mexico that have nothing to do with oil and gas platforms. Under the law, production of ethanol is set to increase five-fold to 36 billion gallons a year by 2020. Some environmentalists are worried that the shift to ethanol ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ viewed as a home-grown alternative to foreign oil ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ could enlarge the northern Gulf’s “dead zone,” an 8,000-square-mile area so devoid of oxygen that fish, shrimp and other sea life cannot survive. Already ethanol, by doubling corn prices since 2002, has driven corn production to its highest levels since World War II. Growing corn requires considerably more nitrogen-based fertilizer than most crops. When the fertilizer runs off fields in the Midwest, it drains into the Mississippi and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico…. “This year’s dead zone is the third highest on record, and I think we’re already seeing an impact from increased ethanol use,” said Donald Scavia, a University of Michigan professor who studies farm practices and hypoxia, or low-oxygen water.

I suppose this should be filed under “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, eh? It would seem that being “green” is not as simple and effortless as one might have thought. Even though one might have the best of intentions in wanting to do right by the environment, it seems that even that most altruistic of actions have unintended and undesirable side effects. Compact flourescent lightbulbs (CFLs) contain highly-toxic mercury. Hybrid cars run off batteries loaded with toxic and dangerous dangerous chemicals. And ethanol production may well end up killing off the Gulf of Mexico. Damned if you do…and damned if you don’t, eh?

In our newly environmentally-conscious world, where driving a hybrid and purchasing carbon offsets have become status symbols, precious little attention seems to be paid to the unpleasant, and in some cases dangerous, side effects of being green. I’m not about to hold forth about how we shouldn’t change out ways until we’re absolutely certain that those changes are doing what we think they are (you can tune to Fox News Channel for that argument if you’re so inclined). Still, even I have to wonder why the benefits of going green are so highly touted, while the drawbacks never seem to garner anywhere near the same level of attention. If going green is to ever truly have any real impact and significance, this issue will need to be addressed and resolved in a meaningful way.

It’s things like this that make me wonder if all the feel-good environmentalism is accomplishing only making those making a sincere effort feel good about themselves. All the while, the net benefit falls fall short of what one might think. I’m not trying to be cynical, but if you want to make a difference, if you sincerely want to do something to have a positive impact on the environment, then shouldn’t that impact be real and not imagined or offset by unpleasant and unwanted side effects?

I don’t have the answer here, but I am concerned that those of us who give a damn are deluding ourselves by overestimating the net benefit of the actions we’re taking. Yes, your hybrid may be a good thing, but what happens to the batteries? What do you do when a CFL breaks, spewing mercury all over your living room? And all the ethanol in the world isn’t going to offset the damage being done to the Gulf of Mexico. Isn’t it time we stopped deluding ourselves and begin trying to make a REAL difference?

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Cluth published on January 3, 2008 6:38 AM.

From the Department of Who (&^%$#@ Cares?? was the previous entry in this blog.

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