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BEST BOONDOGGLE

Corn ethanol

In case you haven't caught a whiff of the stink from one of those brewery/ refineries, Minnesota's ethanol industry is booming. Its unprecedented growth has slowed the last couple of years, thanks mainly to lower gasoline prices and higher construction costs. But with four more ethanol plants in waiting, Minnesota is a long way from turning its back on the corn ethanol boom—and that's a shame. While the goal of shifting to renewable, domestically produced fuels is commendable, most unbiased experts now agree corn is the wrong base crop. To begin with, corn ethanol requires nearly as much energy to create as it produces. Other crops, like soybeans for biodiesel, are much better in terms of energy balance—biodiesel is estimated to produce 93 percent more energy than it takes to create it. Native prairie grasses hold similar promise. But energy balance is hardly the only problem with corn ethanol. Bucolic imagery aside, the cultivation of corn is an extremely nasty enterprise. It requires massive amounts of nitrogen, roughly 135 pounds per acre. After rainfalls, this nitrogen (along with phosphorous and phosphate), inevitably finds its way into the watershed. In the end, a lot of the runoff from Midwestern corn plots ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, creating a gigantic dead zone in the Gulf every year. On top of that, corn requires a lot of herbicides and pesticides, the adverse effects of which are just now becoming apparent. Though it is heresy for either Democrats or Republicans—and agri-giants like Archer Daniels Midland that have been the main beneficiaries of the ethanol boom—to say it, Minnesota needs to grow less corn, not more.

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