Vancouver, British Columbia – Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Wisconsin have released a new report that suggests that the U.S. government’s rush to produce corn-based ethanol as a fuel alternative will worsen pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and increase a “dead zone” that kills fish and aquatic life.

Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia and Chris Kucharik of the University of Wisconsin quantified the effect of biofuel production on the problem of nutrient pollution in a waterway by looking at the estimated land and fertilizer required to meet proposed corn-based ethanol production goals. The U.S. Senate recently announced its energy policy aims of generating 36 billion gallons of ethanol annually by the year 2022, of which 15 billion gallons can be produced from cornstarch. The corn ethanol goal represents more than triple the production in 2006.

Nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fertilizer have been found to promote excess growth of algae in water bodies; in some cases, decomposition of algae consumes much of the oxygen in the water. Fertilizer applied to cornfields in the central U.S. is the primary source of nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River system, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico. Each summer, the nitrogen export creates a “dead zone” of oxygen-deprived waters, unable to support aquatic life; in recent years, it has reached over 20,000 square km. Donner and Kucharik’s findings suggest that if the U.S. meets its proposed ethanol production goals, nitrogen loading by the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico will increase by 10 to 19 per cent.

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