Think of the greatest environmental disaster in recent history. For many people, the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound comes to mind.
Three hundred seals, 2,800 sea otters, 250,000 sea birds and a host of other wildlife were killed by that spill, acknowledged Corrie Pitzer, an industrial psychologist from SAFEmap International in Vancouver. However, he added, 250,000 birds are killed by flying into windows every year.
"The cleanup cost was $2.1 billion, with a 50 percent reach," Pitzer told an audience at a June 25 session of the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) 2007 Professional Development Conference in Orlando, Fla. "That means that only 50 percent of Prince William Sound was cleaned."
Six years after the cleanup, a study was conducted to determine ecological recovery in the sound. What researchers found was that the areas that were not cleaned were in better shape – with more wildlife and cleaner water and soil – than the areas that had been cleaned. The chemicals and high-pressure washing used to "clean" the area had destroyed the ecosystem in some parts of Prince William Sound.
"The environmental disaster was the cleanup," said Pitzer.
Corn-based ethanol is another good example:
Cornell University professor of agriculture David Pimental calculates some very disturbing figures. According to Dr. Pimental, it takes more energy to produce a given amount of ethanol than there is energy available in that ethanol. According to his calculations, producing corn and processing it into 1 gallon of ethanol requires 131,000 BTUs of energy; but 1 gallon of ethanol contains only 77,000 BTUs. So producing ethanol actually creates a net energy loss. And since farmers are using fossil-fuel-powered equipment to plant, maintain and harvest the corn and are using fossil-fuel-powered machinery to process that corn into ethanol and then transport that ethanol to collection points (ethanol can't run in underground pipelines because it picks up damaging impurities), the ethanol industry is actually burning large amounts of gasoline to produce ethanol, and that ethanol contains far less energy than the gasoline they consumed to produce it.
But not all scientists agree with Pimental's analysis regarding energy efficiency. Dr. Michael Wang of the Argonne National Laboratory finds that it requires 0.74 million BTUs of fossil fuels to get 1 million BTUs of ethanol to market. That would mean a net gain in energy, not a net loss.
Energy efficiency aside, those in Pimento's camp actually don't see corn as a truly renewable energy source. Pimento estimates that powering a car for a single year using ethanol would require 11 acres of corn. Since corn fields in the United States take a while to replenish themselves due to both soil erosion and irrigation issues, those acres would be out of commission for a period of time, meaning no corn for ethanol and no usable land for other food crops. To sustain an ethanol-based fuel industry, more and more farm land would have to be set aside for corn alone. The ultimate result could be a shortage of domestically grown food and higher prices at the supermarket for all sorts of produce.