Dead Zone? What Dead Zone? Pro-Ethanol Champions Green Fuel, Forgets Its Role in Eco-Disaster

Last Updated May 6, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Corn and ethanol interests wasted little time extolling the virtues of renewable fuel in the wake of the Transocean (RIG) offshore oil rig explosion that killed 11 people and triggered a spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Because really, why sit around and be glum about the tragedy when you can reach out and educate people with enlightening Twitter messages like this one from the Nebraska Corn Growers Association (Hat tip: The Big Money): "There is a fuel option that doesn't result in oil spills in the ocean. It's known as #ethanol."

It's actually not a bad move. The 210,000-gallon-a-day oil spill should make folks think about the alternatives to fossil fuels. The argument makes sense, if it weren't for one pesky little detail that totally destroys corn-based ethanol's credibility.

In their zeal to champion corn-based ethanol these industries forgot -- or failed to mention -- agriculture's contribution to a different environmental problem in the Gulf of Mexico called creeping dead zones, a human-created summertime phenomenon that snuffs out ocean life in an area about the size of Massachusetts.

The problem begins in Midwestern states like Minnesota and Iowa, where nitrogen and phosphorus used to fertilize crops (as well as lawns and golf courses) run off into the Mississippi River. Once these highly concentrated chemicals enter the Gulf, they help create a super bloom of algae, which eventually dies and ends up on the sea floor. Bacteria devour the algae along with the oxygen and poof: you've got yourself a dead zone or a hypoxic zone, if you're looking for a more official term. If that weren't bad enough: Minnpost reports the oil spill threatens to compound the dead zone problem.

Still, this hasn't stemmed the flow of pro-ethanol messages. If anything, the push to promote ethanol has picked up a bit. As Tom Buis, CEO of the pro-ethanol lobby group Growth Energy recently put it:

It is just a fact that we are cleaner and greener fuel that is produced right here in America.
Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen called for President Obama to use the accident as a "teaching moment" to address the underlying problem of America's reliance on petroleum. And then proceeded to push for a basket of ethanol goodies from the federal government.

Dinneen was actually given a perfect opportunity during a recent interview for "The Ethanol Report," a twice-monthly industry podcast, to back off the rhetoric. At one point the interviewer says "I think it's important that we not be seen as exploiting the tragedy of the oil spill in the gulf because this is still American energy that's being produced.

Dinneen immediately agrees and then can't seem to help but go down the "we're the greener" road.

Yes, we're going to need more oil, but we would be drilling in such environmentally sensitive ecosystems and risking the economic livelihood of so many people in the gulf coast, were it not for out insatiable appetite for petroleum.
Oh, you mean the same environmentally sensitive area that has been experiencing this dead zone phenomenon for more than two decades in large part because of run off from farms up north? And the same area that has seen an explosion of nitrogen -- 37 percent growth from 2007 to 2008 -- in part because of intensive farming of land, including crops used for biofuels?

These messages may seem like a brilliant, savvy and well-timed PR effort from the folks within the corn and ethanol industries. But it's far from it. It's a classic case of not understanding their audience. Pro-ethanol folks are going to support the fuel regardless of an oil spill. In an effort to reach the rest of us, the industry comes off as opportunistic and exploitative, not a group looking out for the country's welfare.

Photo of dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from NASA See additional coverage BNET Energy of oil spill: