Today President Bush signed into law an energy bill that increases efficiency standards for vehicles, phases out incandescent light bulbs, and for the first time places limits on the amount of water that can be used by new washing machines and dishwashers. In a statement, Bush said the measure

...represents a major step forward in expanding the production of renewable fuels, reducing our dependence on oil, and confronting global climate change. It will increase our energy security, expand the production of renewable fuels, and make America stronger, safer, and cleaner for future generations.

However, clean-energy advocates point to serious problems with the final version. Faced with threats of a White House veto, the Senate dropped a provision that rolled back $13.5 billion in tax breaks to oil companies, which would have raised revenue for renewable energy investments. It also dropped a provision creating a federal renewable energy standard.

In addition, the law mandates an almost fivefold increase in the production of ethanol by 2022 -- from 7.5 billion gallons to 36 billion gallons. That means there will be more corn grown in the Midwest, which in turns means more nitrogen-based fertilizer running off fields, pouring into the Mississippi River and eventually flowing into the Gulf, where it will enlarge the "dead zone" -- a 7,900-square-mile area off the coast of Louisiana and Texas so depleted of oxygen that no fish, crabs or shrimp can survive.

As the Associated Press reported earlier this week, some researchers worry that the booming demand for corn will result in the very rapid expansion of the dead zone:

"We might be coming close to a tipping point," said Matt Rota, director of the water resources program for the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group. "The ecosystem might change or collapse as opposed to being just impacted."

Beside threatening species diversity in the Gulf, the dead zone is also a threat to the region's $2.8 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry. GRN points out that the amount of brown shrimp caught declines in years when the dead zone is largest, forcing shrimpers to look elsewhere for their catch.

Other parts of the country will also feel the impact from expanded ethanol production, says Mike Ewall with the Pennsylvania-based Energy Justice Network:

Many hundreds of additional communities are now going to become targets for ethanol biorefineries, including "advanced" biofuels, which will include even more use of biotechnology and which will clear our forests and crop lands to liquidate them to fuel vehicles. Even more troubling is that much of this will create a demand to try to turn trash, sewage sludge and other contaminated waste streams into liquid fuels. We're already busy enough trying to help communities fight these things and our work is going to get FAR bigger. The more we succeed in stopping these insane "biofuel" schemes in the U.S., the more we'll end up importing it and contributing to deforestation and global hunger in other countries.

(In the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration photo above, the reds and oranges represent low oxygen concentrations.)