I just came across this study released last November by the University of Illinois on corn-based ethanol in Illinois and the United States. Some of the components of the report are quite wonky, but the section on ethanol politics and policy was very interesting.As the author of the report, David Bullock, writes: “This irreversibility of bringing factors into ethanol production causes the subsidy policy to act like a political ratchet. It is easy enough politically to cause the subsidy to go up: corn farmers and ethanol producers influence their congressional representatives, and everyone refers to energy self-sufficiency and rural job creation. But once in place, it may well become politically infeasible to bring the subsidy back down. For, after the economy is finished building new ethanol factories, in response to the subsidy, what then? We’ve already argued that when the building process is through, many ethanol factories will not be making large profits.” He later states: “By supporting the ethanol industry, are federal and state governments promoting a policy indeed creating an entitlement that will be later politically impossible to rescind?” If Bullock is correct, we may be creating an entire new political entitlement that has very negative implications for our nation’s rivers and oceans.I am very concerned with corn-ethanol subsidies due to the water impacts of ethanol. The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused largely by nitrogen runoff from farm fields. Increased corn production to feed the ethanol boom will require the application of large quantities of fertilizer – some of which ends up in the Mississppi River and causes the Dead Zone when the nitrogen pollution reaches the Gulf. While there are many legitimate questions about whether corn ethanol is even a wise alternative fuel, any solution should solve a problem, not simply shift a problem elsewhere. It seems that corn ethanol subsidies may be shifting a problem onto the people of the Gulf of Mexico in the form of the Dead Zone.Jeff Grimes is Assistant Director of Water Resources

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