Could outdoorsmen be the latest opponent of the renewable fuels standard?
Could ethanol soon have a new opponent? The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, a bipartisan group of 300 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, which represent nearly all states, held a briefing this week to look at the renewable fuel standard’s impact on wildlife and one of the country’s most prolific fisheries.
"There is a correlation between the increased acreage of corn being planted and fertilized in the Midwest and the size and persistence of areas of hypoxia off the Mississippi River, commonly known as the ‘dead zone,’ " says Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.
McKinney was one of several speakers to address a breakfast briefing of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation on Oct. 29. The briefing focused on potential reforms in the renewable fuel standard and the standard’s impact on fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, and marine fisheries. The foundation works at both the state and federal levels on policy issues to protect and advance the interests of those who engage in hunting and recreational fishing.
Cole Henry, spokesperson for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, says this is the first time the group has looked at how ethanol policies affect sportsmen. As of yet, Henry says the foundation has not taken a position on the renewable fuel standard.
Nitrogen used to fertilize Midwest cornfields leaches into the Mississippi River and out into the Gulf of Mexico, where experts say it feeds a giant algae bloom. This algae bloom eventually dies and settles to the Gulf floor, consuming oxygen and suffocating marine life, creating a "dead zone."
In 2013, the "dead zone" covered an area of 5,840 square miles. While dead zones occur at the mouths of rivers worldwide, McKinney says that the one at the mouth of the Mississippi is the second largest in the world because the river drains such a large land mass—40% of the continental United States.
"I think we need to reconsider federal policies that result in such unintended consequences or at least develop and fund federal actions to mitigate the damage," said McKinney.
Seven states—Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi—account for 75% of the nitrogen that runs off into the Mississippi River, eventually adding to the dead zone.
"Twenty-five percent of the phosphorous and 52% of the nitrogen in the Mississippi comes from corn," McKinney adds.
Taking marginal land out of the Conservation Reserve Program and planting it to corn is also a concern, McKinney adds. While not necessarily in favor of reducing or eliminating the renewable fuel standard, McKinney says that investment needs to be made in figuring out ways to reduce fertilizer run-off.
"Farms don’t want to waste the fertilizer," he says. "It is money down the drain."