The ethanol boom might reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, but the huge increase in corn crops that it requires could seriously harm the Chesapeake Bay, according to a government report to be released today.
The report by the multistate Chesapeake Bay Commission estimates that demand for ethanol will lead to an increase of 300,000 acres of corn in the six-state watershed. That increase would erode the progress that farmers have made in reducing the amount of pollution flowing into the bay from farms, sending an added 5 million pounds of nitrogen into the estuary each year.
But if done right, ethanol could be a major opportunity for the region, said Ann Swanson, executive director of the commission, which wrote the report, Biofuels and the Bay: Getting it Right to Benefit Farms, Forests and the Chesapeake.
"If handled incorrectly, biofuels could lead to increased loads of pollution in the bay and shifts in crop patterns that we might not want," Swanson said. "However, we know how to handle it correctly. If you choose to only go the economic path, you will degrade the environment. But if you choose the other path, you can have your cake and eat it too."
The increased demand for ethanol is driving up corn prices and encouraging farmers, many of whom have long struggled financially, to stay in business. But it has fueled fears among environmentalists that farmers will plant more corn instead of nitrogen-absorbing cover crops.
In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that Maryland farmers planted 540,000 acres of corn, a 10 percent increase over last year and the largest corn crop in 15 years. Ethanol plants are springing up all over the Midwest to meet demand.
Several have been proposed for Maryland, including two in the Baltimore harbor area and one on the Eastern Shore. In this year's State of the Union address, President Bush called for domestic production of 35 billion gallons of biofuels by 2017.
But ethanol has its drawbacks. It takes fossil fuels to ferment the corn into fuel. And it can't be piped across the country, like gas or oil. It has to be trucked.
As a crop, corn often requires more fertilizer than soybeans or wheat, environmentalists say. Much of that ends up running off the land and into waterways, where it leads to overgrowth of algae that consumes the oxygen in the water, leaving little for fish and sea grasses.
The commission's report used computer models from the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, to run its numbers. It recommends developing a biofuels strategy for farmers and government officials in the 64,000-square-mile bay watershed.
The report is not specific about what the strategy should be, but it says states should consider both environmental and economic needs in planning for biofuels production. It says Maryland should take the lead in developing other sources of alternative fuels, such as cellulose and switch grass, that it says are more environmentally friendly.
It also encourages the states to create incentives for private businesses to invest in new technologies and refineries. And it calls for more federal funding for conservation practices, such as cover crops and buffers.
Maryland Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin said he had not seen the report and declined to comment.
But state Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson said that while the nation's interest in ethanol will largely benefit the Midwest, increased prices and demand for Maryland corn will help keep area farmers in business. Much of the state's farmland, including the 4,000 acres that Richardson and his family work, are on the Eastern Shore, where large tracts that once sprouted soybeans and corn are now growing townhouses.
"If a farmer gets to the point where he can't make a profit, that's where the land sales start, and that's what you don't want to see," Richardson said.
Because of the ethanol push, corn hovered at about $4 a bushel for part of the summer, though its current price is about $3.25. Had it not been for the drought killing much of the crop, Richardson said, farmers might have made money this year even without their government subsidies.
Ken Staver, a University of Maryland watershed scientist who helped prepare the report, said part of its purpose was to focus on what the states can do right.
"It seems like there's a story every day about how bad corn ethanol is going to be for the bay, and I don't know that that's going to be the case," he said. "If nothing changed, it's not clear that we're going to get the bay restored, so the notion that ethanol is the thing that's going to keep us from it, I think, has been a bit if a distraction from the real issues."
Since the mid-1980s, when the states and the federal government signed the first bay cleanup agreements, their combined efforts have reduced nitrogen pollution from all sources, including sewage plants, farms and other runoff, by about 70 million pounds. But to reach cleanup goals, they will have to cut nitrogen pollution by 90 million more pounds - a tall order when thousands more people are moving into the watershed every year and much of the open space is being paved over for developments.
Environmentalists also worry that with corn fetching high prices, farmers will not want to put their land in conservation programs. One of the most popular of these has been the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, in which the government pays farmers to remove some of their land from production. This summer, the grain lobby was urging the Senate to let farmers out of their contracts early so they could put that land back into production.
"Farmers are businessmen," said Ned Gerber, a biologist who runs Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, a nonprofit that helps farmers and other landowners design, build and manage wildlife habitats on their lands. He said there's no question that farmers will try to work their fields again if it is profitable.
Gerber worries that as the United States tries to become less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, leaders will make the same mistakes that have dogged other countries.
In Brazil, for example, half the transportation fuel comes from sugar cane ethanol. However, demand for that crop is pushing agriculture closer to the country's delicate rain forests. Similarly, European demand for palm oil, which it plans to use as a biodiesel fuel, could wipe out many rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, he said.
"Nobody on the green side of things is in favor of being dependent on fossil fuels. But we shouldn't rush headlong into things," Gerber said. "I don't think many people are convinced that corn ethanol is an answer to our long-term energy problems."