Thursday, December 29, 2011

Why are we Depleting and Polluting the Ogallala Aquifer to Manufacture Ethanol?

File:Ogallala saturated thickness 1997-sattk97-v2.svg

I would like to point readers to Grist today, where my friend Julene Bair has written another excellent article, "Can the 2012 Farm Bill protect the Ogallala Aquifer?" In it, she goes after one of the subjects which upsets me most, that of Nebraska corn farmers using precious ancient aquifer water to make corn ethanol to burn in our gas guzzling SUV tanks, lawn mowers, 4-wheelers, snowmobiles, F-150s, and H2s.

Back in 2007 as ethanol mandates were coming at us and taxpayer money was going towards infrastructure necessary to produce corn ethanol, I was still living in Nebraska. At first, I watched in awe as one after another ethanol manufacturing plants were constructed. Doubtful that they would be located in the drier regions of Nebraska, I soon learned that the businesses involved preferred aquifer fed corn because its yields were consistently higher and less susceptible to the vagaries of weather found elsewhere. Thanks to the Ogallala aquifer, Nebraska is now the number two ethanol producing state, second only to Iowa. Were it not for the aquifer (and irrigation from the North and South Platte Rivers), only the eastern part of the state would be able to grow naturally rainfall fed corn.

Nebraska Ethanol Plant Map

Aquifer water is next-to-free for farmers wishing to irrigate. Once they pay for their pivot systems, they need to pay for electricity to pump the water, the deeper the more expensive their pumping costs, which does affect their profit margin. Lucky for these Nebraska farmers, electricity is relatively cheap in Nebraska due to large coal burning power plants and two nuclear facilities (remember - the ones that flooded last spring), making Nebraska an electricity exporter, and attracting power-thirsty businesses such as Google to the banks of the Missouri River.

Logic? Not so much.

Engineers speak of the EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) of corn ethanol. It is already low enough (.8-1.3) that it doesn't make up for the environmental damage which it causes, but once you throw irrigated corn into the calculation, there is virtually NO energy returned and quite likely there is net energy lost. This means that the electricity made from coal, natural gas, or diesel which is used to irrigate the corn would best be used directly to power vehicles and we'd save the aquifer and the land degradation involved, too.

Finally, when you consider that we are exporting approximately 7% of the ethanol we've made here in the U.S. this year, it becomes even more absurd to use aquifer fed corn to make ethanol.
——Kay McDonald

For other articles by Julene Bair see:

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  1. Nice to see long term thinking on the topic of water. Some see H2O as the next 'crude oil'.

  2. Hopefully with the subsidies and tariffs removed Brazilian imports may put a damper on this madness.

  3. Thanks for sharing the link to my Grist piece on the Ogallala Aquifer and the 2012 farm bill. You make an excellent point re the negative energy return on irrigated corn ethanol. Where is the reason in this madness?