Corn Commentary

Oil: The Real Green Fuel? What?

In a new story posted at National Review, writer Jonah Goldberg breaks from his normally rational approach to issues by arguing that oil is “greener than green” fuels like ethanol and the BP oil disaster doesn’t change that.

I beg to differ. There is nothing green about oil, and contrary to his contention this changes everything. The BP incident may very well be the poster child for the future literally and figuratively. Literally because it will happen again somewhere else in the world because of the inherent risk and figuratively because it reinforces the point that all the easy oil is gone.

From here on out each barrel will carry an increasingly high environmental price whether it comes from the deep ocean or is dug from open pits on the face of mother earth as tar sands.

Goldberg goes on to compare the hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi, otherwise known as the “Dead Zone”  by those with a flair for the dramatic, to the oil disaster. Several things make agriculture’s role in these areas of oxygen starved water difficult to understand. Many scientists say hypoxic zones are naturally occurring. Dead zones exist at the mouth of lots of rivers around the world, including many that mysteriously use no commercial fertilizers in their watersheds.

His contention that increased ethanol production will increase the size of the dead zone (he cites a National Academy of Sciences 2008 study)  is clearly off base and displays an ignorance of what the technological revolution taking place in modern agriculture. Corn yields are skyrocketing on the same acreage and at the same time this is occurring while new, innovative fertilization methods mean we are growing 70% more corn per ounce of fertilizer.

Much of the science also seems to be solely focused on agriculture while giving short shrift to other major sources that contribute large quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus etc…such as homeowner and golf course applications. Then there is always the one big documented offender…antiquated, deteriorating or just plain inadequate public sewage treatment plants.

In today’s tight budget environment nobody wants to talk about treatment facilities that need to be replaced or even expanded. This is expensive, so in times of heavy flow it is easier to dump inadequately treated water or let overtaxed systems overflow. The highest spike in these naughty chemicals is below the discharge of plants like this…go figure.

It is also bizarre and hard to explain one other odd fact. If agriculture is a primary contributor to hypoxia then the worst flare-ups should come in the years when there is the heaviest rainfall and runoff. Such is not the case. This one fact alone means critics need to go back to the drawing board if we truly want to understand and fix this problem. In the mean time, agriculture has done yeoman’s work to use fertilizer in a targeted manner, stop soil erosion and assure improved water quality.

Goldberg’s article also discusses the economic contributions of the domestic oil industry and how it is better than relying on imported oil. No arguing with that but he might go deeper. First, we now import more than 60% of our oil, and even with deep water drilling we will continue to do so without other solutions like alternative energy. If we look at the export of jobs and U.S. dollars for this oil and the human and defense costs of our oil addiction and it boggles the mind.

His entire arguments regarding land use and the impacts of ethanol on food prices are also weak and fall far shy of reality and don’t even deserve space here, but feel free the check out the accompanying links.

Fossil fuels have indeed been a great boon to industrialization, economic development, and having a modern-mobile lifestyle, but to say petroleum has been a “boon to the environment” is pure tripe. The cold reality is that we are oil junkies and this dependency has drained our national economy as surely as a vampire at a Red Cross convention.

We are so dependent that we could never move away from oil by going cold turkey. This would crash our economy in a way that makes the banking/investment fiasco seem like a minor annoyance and result in a very discontented populace.

There are no easy answers but to do nothing and ignore this evolving crisis is irresponsible.