We Cleaned the Air, But Polluted the Water:
An Organic Solution to a Political and Environmental Mess, or
"Have Your Corn and Drive it Too"
Lois Epstein, Senior Engineer, Environmental Defense,
Eric Brown, Communications Director, Center for a New American Dream,
Mike Italiano, CEO, Sustainable Products Corporation
Here's an environmentalist's dilemma - a gasoline additive cleans the air, but turns out to pollute groundwater. That's what happened with a chemical called MTBE, which was added to gasoline to meet Clean Air Act requirements, but which is now the subject of more than a little controversy. MTBE was once seen as a solution to air pollution woes in big cities. Instead, the bad-tasting, toxic chemical contaminated thousands of drinking water wells as a result of leaking tanks, ruptured pipelines, and plain old spillage.
Some Members of Congress will use this problem as an excuse to gut the Clean Air Act or to get rid of cleaner burning fuels entirely. Others see the MTBE dilemma as the salvation for ethanol, the cleaner-burning corn-based fuel maligned by some as a pork-barrel subsidy for Midwestern farmers and hailed by others as a substitute for foreign oil. While politicians are torn on ethanol, pretty much everyone agrees that we should ban the use of MTBE. There are a number of bills making the Capitol Hill rounds that would accomplish this.
However, there is far less agreement on how we can produce cleaner burning fuels that are actually good for the environment. More importantly, there is little understanding about how we got into this mess to begin with. How could we have thought that the manufacture of a toxic chemical, albeit for all the right reasons, would not come back to haunt us? Makes you wonder.
But what's missing in this debate is a real understanding of the true environmental costs of how we manufacture products of all kinds. Take ethanol, for example. Closer examination of ethanol production reveals that the manufacture of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers used to grow conventional corn to make ethanol create almost as much pollution as the MTBE it replaces. In other words, the things that go into making a "clean" product can be horribly polluting. Sound familiar?
There is an elegant solution to the MTBE mess that should please Midwestern farmers and environmentalists alike - use organically grown corn promoted by USDA. When we conduct what industry types call a "life cycle assessment," showing the hidden environmental costs of a product's manufacture, organic ethanol emerges as a huge winner. Ethanol becomes a great idea if the corn used to produce it is grown without polluting toxic chemicals that are expensive to produce, transport, and dispose of.
In fact, the so-called "carbohydrate economy," which produces plant-based fuels, chemicals, plastics, inks and even powerful cleaning solvents, could have an enormous environmental and economic benefit for family farmers and consumers if producers switch to organic production. These products are produced in this country, are biodegradable, and are safe. The possibilities are incredible.
And while many Americans might think the country needs to conduct a life cycle assessment of Congress itself, it's clear that Congress needs to incorporate life cycle thinking when it decides what to do about the MTBE problem. Organically produced ethanol would reduce the dependence on foreign oil, create jobs, protect family farms, protect our air without polluting our water, and help drive markets for organic farm products, which are much easier on the environment.
The simple fact is, that when Congress makes important and necessary decisions, like mandating clean air or water, it would do well to step back once in a while and take a broader look at the problem at hand. Congress has the opportunity right now to help Americans shift their consumption patterns to safe, renewable products improving our quality of life and protecting the environment. What could be better than that?