Ecologist Dismisses 'Ethanol Solution'

Townsend notes that producing corn for ethanol use requires intensively fertilized fields, which produce 'the forgotten greenhouse gas.'
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Ecologist Alan Townsend doesn't pull any punches: "To me, ethanol is a loser!"

The ecologist and biochemist at the University of Colorado can't find any benefits in America's love affair with corn- and sugar cane-based ethanol.

While discussing the nitrogen cycle with Miller-McCune.com, Townsend noted the pernicious effects of ethanol production and what has been called "the forgotten greenhouse gas."

Much of his concern centered on the production of corn and sugar cane used to distill ethanol, and in this he suggested those who tout ethanol's contributions in stalling global warming are missing the whole picture. In the U.S., these crops receive heavy application of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and "intensively fertilized fields are where we get nitrous oxide emissions — and that's an intense greenhouse gas."

A study released from the University of Edinburgh last year determined that biofuels produced from corn and rapeseed (common in Europe) produced 50 to 70 percent more greenhouse gases than did fossil fuels. The gases released, nitrous oxide and methane, are generally more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide; 80218134552.htm" target="_blank">nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide and lingers in the atmosphere longer, according to Britain's Nitrous Oxide Focus Group.

It's estimated that 70 percent of the world's nitrous oxide emissions come from agriculture, adding impetus to reducing the nitrogen footprint through things like smarter tilling or wastewater management.

Townsend's rejection of America's current forms of ethanol production extend past laughing gas. "With corn-based ethanol, I have seen nothing to convince me that this is a wise energy policy." (He's joined on this by, among others, Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, who does little to hide his scorn about diverting food crops to energy production with a sarcastic, "Now that's a bright idea.")

He rejected the notion that this "first generation" of ethanol can lead the U.S. to energy independence. "We don't have near the real estate to replace imported oil," Townsend said.

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