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As of July 2008, there are 160 ethanol plants in operation, 7 being expanded and 123 more under construction.12 A total of about 200-300 are proposed.13
Biotech corn comes in two main varieties: one where the corn produces Bt toxin to kill the European corn borer, and one that enables the corn to withstand higher doses of commercial herbicides like Aventis' Liberty or Monsanto's Roundup,17 with Roundup having been found to be more toxic than previously thought, especially to amphibians.18 Both Bt and herbicide-resistant corn can lead to the development of resistance in bugs and weeds. Bt is a soil bacteria used as a pesticide of last resort by organic farmers because Bt resistant bugs are a major problem. Both methods also risk genetic pollution,19 spreading the biotech attributes to nearby crops, wild relatives or weeds.20
Meeting the lifetime fuel requirements of just one year's worth of U.S. population growth with straight ethanol (assuming each baby lived 70 years), would cost 52,000 tons of insecticides, 735,000 tons of herbicides, 93 million tons of fertilizer, and the loss of 2 inches of soil from the 12.3 billion acres on which the corn was grown.21 The U.S. only has 2.263 billion acres of land and soil depletion is already a critical issue. Soil is being lost from corn plantations about 12 times faster than it is being rebuilt.22
Wetlands – the most productive fish and wildlife habitat there is – consume nitrogen and filter out pesticides and sediments, but wetlands are being drained in order to produce surplus corn. The Corn Belt has lost about 70 percent of its wetlands. In some areas, corn has to be irrigated by pumps that suck water from the ground faster than it percolates back in. Moreover, the pumps are powered by natural gas, the frenzied production of which is creating horrendous problems for fish and wildlife.23
Factory farming practices utilize phosphorus to produce corn for ethanol and production depends on the availability of this mineral for the viability of the soil. In 2007, U.S. production slipped below 30 million tons for the first time in over 40 years.29 With the decline in production and increased usage from more corn planting for ethanol we are increasing our dependence on foreign sources to sustain our phosphorus needs. USGS estimates that aside from the U.S., the world’s largest phosphate rock stores exist in China, a budding superpower and geopolitical rival, and Morocco, a region of increasing unrest and attacks.30
Potash is the major source of potassium. In 2007 the U.S. imported over 80% of the potash consumed, with 85% of all potash sales going directly to the fertilizer industry.31
Increased global fertilizer demand, the weakening of the dollar, rising cost of inputs, and diminishing natural resources have all contributed to a stark rise in nitrogen-based fertilizer prices in the U.S. USDA data indicate that in June 2008, average fertilizer prices stood 286% higher than their 1990-92 level.32 Clearly, the idea that industrial agriculture could achieve “energy independence” for the United States is nothing but a political farce.
Other parts of the biorefinery production process release pollution as well. Prodded by hundreds of complaints at the Gopher State Ethanol plant in St. Paul, where residents complained that the plant smelled like "rubbing alcohol mixed with burning corn," the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency began testing emissions from the plant. They found high levels of carbon monoxide, methanol, toluene and other Volatile Organic Compounds, including formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, both of which are known to cause cancer in animals.
The EPA then tested other ethanol plants and concluded that "most, if not all" ethanol plants are emitting air pollutants at many times the rate allowed by their permits. Between 2002 and 2005, EPA settled cases with ADM and Cargill, the largest ethanol producers, over their 9 ethanol plants, forcing them to pay out over $485 million for these and other facilities, mostly to invest in afterburners to burn off the exhaust gases that cause most of the odors. Settlements with 12 Minnesota ethanol plants resulted in similar requirements to cut back on emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates, and other hazardous pollutants.34
Even after installing new equipment, neighborhood residents continue to complain of odors and ill health effects, since emissions still continue through leaking pipes and through vents when the pollution control equipment isn’t working.35
Ethanol costs three and a half times as much as gasoline to produce42 and contains only 60% as much energy per gallon as gasoline.43 So, while a gallon of ethanol-blended gas may cost the same as regular gasoline at the pump, it won't take you as far.
Ethanol must be blended with gasoline. But ethanol absorbs water. Gasoline doesn't. Therefore, ethanol cannot be shipped by regular petroleum pipelines. Instead, it must be shipped separately and mixed on-site. Shipping by truck, rail car, or barge are far more expensive than pipelines.44 They also carry larger risks of accidents during shipping.
Increasing the average mileage of passenger cars and SUVs by 3-5 miles per gallon would dwarf the effects of all possible biofuel production from all sources of biomass available in the U.S. Inflating passenger car tires properly today will have more impact on the energy independence of U.S. than the 2012 ethanol production requirements.55