Most residents of the gulf coast are familiar with the ominous Dead Zone, an area of the northern Gulf of Mexico with no or little dissolved oxygen that kills or cannot support marine life. Studies have indicated it has been around since the 1970s, at least.
The most recent size estimate of the zone centered off the coast of Louisiana is 6,474 square miles, which is substantially larger than last year’s girth and greater than scientists forecast it to be as recently as June, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Dead Zone now spans a section of ocean about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
During drought, the zone shrinks. And when abundant rains flood the Midwest, it expands, said Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, a member of Texas OneGulf Center of Excellence at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
Government and independent scientists believe the main cause is a chain reaction stemming from nutrient runoff from the watershed of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, which drains 31 states and two provinces in Canada. Pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus flow into the gulf, in turn, triggering an explosive growth of oxygen-stealing algal blooms. When the algae dies it settles and decomposes on the ocean floor, continuing to deplete oxygen from the lower water column, which is most affected by the condition.
Granted, all rivers sweep nutrients into oceans, but not as mightily as the Mississippi.
Where does the nitrogen and phosphorus come from? Lots of places, but mostly from lawns, cropland fertilizers, golf courses, sewage treatment plants, leaky septic tanks and natural sources. And generally, each of these sources requires rain to carry them into rivers, streams and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico.
According to a recent report recent report on the Dead Zone, nutrient concentrations in the Mississippi River in recent months are reaching the highest levels since 1997, when scientists began keeping such records.
“The primary driver of the increased nutrient loading is agricultural land use, which is strongly influenced by farm subsidies,” according to the report titled 2016 Forecast: Summer Hypoxic Zone Size Northern Gulf of Mexico by R. Eugene Turner and Nancy N. Rabalais.
McKinney said he believes government corn subsidies and the resulting outflow of pollutants from these expanding crop fields are at the root of this growing environmental problem threatening the gulf.
Ethanol proponents have vehemently denied this assertion, accusing biofuel opponents of attempting to divert attention away from the BP oil spill with false and unsubstantiated allegations.
“Data and information from government agencies, university researchers, and other sources reveals that there is no correlation whatsoever between recent trends in corn and ethanol production and the size of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone,” the Renewable Fuels Association published in 2010.
Flooding in 2015 and earlier this year washed away tremendous amounts of pollutants that had accumulated on land during the prolonged drought. The sources of much of these nutrients were cornfields, 40 percent of which are dedicated to producing ethanol, which fuel companies are compelled by Congress to blend with gasoline.
Since the 2005 introduction of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires transportation fuel to contain a minimum amount of renewable fuel, the acreage of U.S. land used for corn and soy beans has grown by 16.8 million.
A recent article by Geoff Cooper with the Renewable Fuel Association Renewable Fuel Association asserts this figure is intentionally deceiving because total cropland acreage today is actually 20 percent lower than it was in 1969.
A 2013 Fox News story Fox News story suggests the government’s ethanol program has encouraged farmers to convert wildlife habitat to plowed fields.
“More than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost since the federal government required that gasoline be blended with increasing amounts of ethanol, an Associated Press analysis of satellite data found,” the article states. “Plots that were wild grass or pastureland seven years ago are now corn and soybean fields.”
McKinney said the RFA argument falls flat because its statistic includes “all crop acreage” rather than isolating acres used in ethanol production. The pro-ethanol group Growth Energy said American farmers grow five times more corn than they did in the 1930s, but they do it on 20 percent less land.
Most ethanol comes from corn. The reason soybean acreage is included in this statistic is that it’s often used as a rotational crop by corn farmers and both are used in the production of biofuels, according to Smater Fuel Future, an anti-ethanol group, funded, in part by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, along with many agricultural and dairy organizations.
McKinney said if you combine drought with expanding crop fields of mostly corn to produce ethanol and the Mississippi River’s unencumbered outflow, the result becomes an environmental bane disguised as a government-funded plan to reduce the effects of climate change.
“There is no longer any environmental arguments for ethanol, all have been debunked,” McKinney said. “The basic issues remaining is the question of how the federal government can spend $16 billion restoring the Gulf on one hand and at the same time subsidize its destruction on the other.”
In an effort to stem the nutrient-rich tide some think is caused, in part, by subsidized corn, the federal government has spent $46 billion since 1997 to encourage farmers to voluntarily reduce fertilizer use and alter practices that pollute, said Emily Cassidy, a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group.
Cassidy said the sources of these conservation payments are split between the U.S. Department of Agriculture ($42 billion) and the Environmental Protection Agency ($4 billion). But it’s not working for conservation, she added.
NOAA officials estimate the Dead Zone costs the nation’s seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year. And it likely will get worse, scientists believe. The gulf produces about 40 percent of the nation’s seafood, which includes offshore species such as shrimp and red snapper. And Louisiana is second in seafood production to Alaska, according to The Nature Conservancy.
But it’s not just excessive fertilizer that is exacerbating the hypoxia problem, scientists say. The BP oil spill area touches the Dead Zone. And the process of oil decomposition also consumes oxygen.
The Renewable Fuels Association argues that the federal renewable fuel program that promotes ethanol has been instrumental in reducing oil imports, lowering gasoline prices, enhancing the economic health of rural America and improving air quality. And the pro-ethanol group claims the anti-ethanol arguments are nothing more than Big Oil’s tired, disingenuous talking points.
McKinney dismisses this rhetoric.
“I never worry about the renewable fuels crowd,” McKinney said. “They’re just trying to maintain federal subsidies that if lost would make their industry noncompetitive.”
McKinney points out that the anti-ethanol coalition now includes environmental and conservation organizations, such as the Sierra Club and Ducks Unlimited, some of which have adopted positions that are a complete turnaround from their original stance. Even many agriculture groups that once embraced ethanol mandates now see the harm it creates, he said.
The arguments against ethanol from corn as an environmental savior have been around for years. In 2014, The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change listed several negative consequences, including land-use issues and nitrogen pollution from excessive fertilizer use. While the report falls well short of denouncing ethanol outright, scientists say it represents the panel’s changing attitude.
“Increasing bioenergy crop cultivation poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity,” the report states.
And for Texas, the largest, nearest and most economically important ecosystem at risk is the Gulf of Mexico, McKinney said.