Environmentalists and ethanol promoters have their differences, but one in particular is surfacing from below the nation's fields of corn: Will the Ogallala Aquifer, which contributes to water supplies in eight states, be further strained if current trends in ethanol production persist?
"State agencies that are proposing ethanol plants need to be concerned about water withdrawal," said Timothy Male, senior scientist for Environmental Defense. In a report last week, the group noted that the process of turning corn into ethanol requires huge amounts of water.
"The direction we're taking is that not all biofuels are created equal," Male added, "and we need to come up with standards through which we can evaluate all the fuels."
Trade groups, however, defended ethanol from corn as an important component of the rural economy and criticized some of the report's findings.
"I think they're hitting the panic button a little prematurely," said Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, which promotes ethanol. "Our industry is very aware of natural resources, and we're very cautious in how we use those resources."
Hartwig said ethanol plants go through a lengthy approval process and have to meet standards that include ensuring adequate water supplies.
"We're also working on technologies that will continue to improve ethanol production efficiencies, which include reducing water use," he said.
86 new plants on way
Ethanol's popularity as an alternative fuel has reached an all-time high. With about 119 plants nationwide and 86 more on the way, the country's ethanol output was about 6 billion gallons last year, according to the RFA.
But according to an Environmental Defense report, President Bush's goal of 35 billion gallons of ethanol by 2015 is "almost certain to result in a major increase in corn production." That increase will strain the underground aquifer, as well as grasslands that would be turned into cropland to grow the corn used in most ethanol plants.
The Environmental Defense report said new corn ethanol plants under construction in areas of highest depletion in the aquifer will increase the region's ethanol production by 900 percent.
"This dramatic expansion of ethanol production has substantial implications for already strained water and grassland resources in the Ogallala Aquifer region," according to the report.
But Geoff Cooper, spokesman for the National Corn Growers Association, said that of the additional 14 million acres of corn planted last year, none came from native grassland or pasture land "or anything like that."
"To suggest corn is going to be planted on native grassland is a stretch, and we just don't see it playing out that way," Cooper said.
Water demands from the ethanol plants in areas where the aquifer is depleted "may reach 2.6 billion gallons per year for corn-to-fuel processing alone, and between 59 and 120 billion gallons per year for increased water demand if there are local increases in irrigated corn production," according to the report. The eight Ogallala states are Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas.
Ethanol production in Kansas, which has nine ethanol plants, with a capacity of more than 270.5 million gallons, was expected to quadruple by 2010.
The report said if four new ethanol plants in Kansas lead to any increase in local irrigated corn production, the plants would have an "even larger impact on water pumping demands in one of the most over exploited sections of the Ogallala Aquifer, where a large region of the water table declined by over 40 feet between 1980 and 1996."
But Kansas Agriculture Secretary Adrian Polansky said ethanol plants in Kansas do not adversely affect the aquifer.
"Ethanol plants being put in place in western Kansas in the Ogallala Aquifer area have no impact on the water use in that area," Polansky said. "The Ogallala Aquifer area is basically closed to new appropriation."
Polansky also said the increased demand for corn did not have a major effect on corn production in Kansas last year. Kansas farmers planted about 3.65 million acres of corn last year, and this year they planted 3.7 million acres.
"That's hardly a significant change," he said. "I think it's very oversimplistic to try to make conclusions about what farmers' decisions will be because of ethanol."