New Report Outlines Potential Environmental Pitfalls of Some Ethanol

September 20, 2007


Sharyn Stein, 202-572-3396

Sean Crowley, 202-572-3331

(Washington, DC – September 20, 2007) Ethanol and other biofuels have remarkable potential to help fight global warming but have many potential downsides if they’re not produced carefully, according to a new report released today by Environmental Defense.

The report, Potential Impacts of Biofuels Expansion on Natural Resources: A Case Study of the Ogallala Aquifer Region focuses on the Ogallala Aquifer region, a vast expanse of plains across eight states that was the center of the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. (The report and more information, including maps and state-by-state data, are available at

“The Ogallala Aquifer is a microcosm of the challenges we’ll face in America as we develop renewable fuels,” said Martha Roberts, co-author of the report and a fellow at Environmental Defense. “Nine new ethanol plants are already planned for some of the most water-depleted areas of the Ogallala Aquifer, even though those areas are vulnerable to erosion and the entire region’s water resources are stretched thin.”

The Ogallala is one of the world’s largest aquifers and is an important water source for parts of eight states: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. However, over-pumping has already caused dramatic water table declines in the area. Water demands from new ethanol plants would further strain the aquifer, increasing demand by as much as 2.6 billion gallons a year just to process the corn and produce the fuel. Even worse, another 120 billion gallons a year could be needed for irrigation to grow more corn in the region, and any increased corn production on land that’s now left idle could cause Depression-style dust bowls.

“Biofuels are one of our best potential weapons to fight climate change, but not all biofuels are created equal,” said co-author, Dr. Timothy Male, senior scientist for Environmental Defense. “Expanding ethanol without protecting our 70 years of progress in conserving soil, water, and rare grassland habitat would be the environmental equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

The report recommends maintaining or expanding two federal conservation programs: the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides cost-share and rental payments to farmers and ranchers who retire cropland to grass cover; and the Grasslands Reserve Program, which pays farmers and ranchers permanent easement or rental payments to protect, restore or enhance grasslands or grazing operations. Both programs are part of the Farm Bill, the country’s largest agricultural policy legislation, which Congress is due to reauthorize this year.

“This report provides even more proof that America needs a conservation-focused Farm Bill and a ‘sodsaver’ policy that eliminates government subsidies that perversely reward converting grasslands to cropland,” said Male.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported this week that more than 25 million acres of grasslands have been converted to cropland since 1982, partly encouraged by subsidies. The GAO also reported that the loss of these grasslands creates a further drain on federal resources because they lead to higher disaster and crop insurance payments.