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Is Ethanol Better or Worse for the Environment?

corn-based ethanolEthanol may be good for the agricultural community that gets to divert crops to supplement gas but it may not be too good for the environment. That’s according to a study just released from the University of Michigan, which says that crops used to make biofuels only absorb about 37 percent of the carbon that is later released into the atmosphere.

In a story appearing in the London Telegraph, Professor John DeCicco asserts that his findings undercut the very rationale for having ethanol supplements and public subsidies of them.

“When you look at what’s actually happening on the land, you find that not enough carbon is being removed from the atmosphere to balance what’s coming out of the tailpipe,” he told the paper. “When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline.”

To be clear, there are two generations of ethanol: the first is tied to corn while the second is more advanced cellulostic ethanol and associated with things like switchgrass, wood chips and municipal waste. Most of the criticism is tied to corn, which is not only less efficient than cellulosic ethanol but it is also essential food.

Congress has sought to expand ethanol use from a base of 6.5 billion gallons in 2005 to 16 billion gallons by 2022, as part of the Renewable Fuel Standard. As such, ethanol is to comprise 10 percent of gasoline’s blend. The concern: Farmers are replacing other crops with corn, thereby creating shortages of other food products. A transition to cellulosic ethanol would therefore mitigate that scenario.

Cellulosic fibers are abundant and could supply 130 million gallons a year of ethanol that would replace gasoline, although it is still pricey when compared to corn-based ethanol and some early trials have ended in disappointment. To commercialize the fuel additive, developers say that they have to increase scale and to bring down the cost to $2 a barrel — a tough proposition in current market conditions.

To move things along, the U.S. Department of Energy is funding second-generation biomass projects. Beyond Project Liberty revved up two years ago and is supported by a $100 million public investment. There’s also the Indian River BioEnergy Center in Florida that produces 8 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year from municipal waste. Dupont, meanwhile, is going ahead with an advanced unit in Iowa to create 30 million gallons annually.

“Home-grown biofuels have the potential to further increase our energy security, stimulate rural economic development, and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector,” says Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Broadly speaking, oil giant BP, has said that bio-fuels could provide up to 23 percent of the global demand for transportation fuels by 2030. But is a good move, environmentally speaking?

Right now, ethanol is made mostly from corn. The central criticism has been that it takes an awfully lot of energy to create a gallon of ethanol from corn. Some circles say that when it is all tallied up, it’s a wasteful process. Opponents also say that encouraging farmers to use their land to make fuels will lead to deforestation. That, in turn, increases global warming.

More recent studies refute those findings, including one by the Department of Energy. It says that for every one unit of input, 1.4 units of corn-based ethanol are produced. While not earth shattering, chances are the results will only get better over time. The findings for cellulosic ethanol are a lot better: greenhouse gases are 90 percent less compared to petroleum-based gasoline, according to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.

Corn-based ethanol has endured because it has had strong political support. But those first-generation fuel additives may one day lose their sway as the second generation technologies replace them.

One thought on “Is Ethanol Better or Worse for the Environment?

  1. The University of Michigan study that Silverman refers to in the article above was bought and paid for by ‘Big Oil’ and it uses the same flawed methodology seen in previous studies by the same author.
    Professor John DeCicco has been making these arguments against biofuels for years, and for years they have been rejected by climate scientists, regulatory bodies and governments around the world. DeCicco is muddying the waters, trying to confuse the public into believing that biofuels offer no GHG reduction relative to gasoline. This is part of oil industry’s multifaceted attempt to repeal the federal Renewable Fuel Standard that mandates increasing amounts of renewable fuels in the US fuel supply
    In the study DeCicco is essentially suggesting that plants ultimately used for bioenergy don’t absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. He claims that the scientific community’s centuries-old understanding of photosynthesis and plant biology is wrong. DeCicco’s assertion that plants somehow emit more carbon when burned as fuel than they take in from the atmosphere during photosynthesis defies the most basic laws of plant physiology.
    The truth is, biomass crops used to produce energy act as temporary carbon sinks. During growth, they quickly absorb CO2 that was just in the atmosphere. The same amount of CO2 is then returned to the atmosphere when the carbon in the crop is combusted for energy. In this way, the use of biomass for energy recycles atmospheric carbon as part of a relatively rapid cycle. In contrast, the use of fossil fuels adds to atmospheric CO2 by emitting carbon that was previously sequestered deep underground for millions of years.
    According to researchers at Duke University, the University of Minnesota, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory: ‘A critical temporal distinction exists when comparing ethanol and gasoline lifecycles. Oil deposits were established millions of years in the past. The use of oil transfers into today’s atmosphere GHGs that had been sequestered and secured for millennia and would have remained out of Earth’s atmosphere if not for human intervention. While the production and use of bioenergy also releases GHGs, there is an intrinsic difference between the two fuels, for GHG emissions associated with biofuels occur at temporal scales that would occur naturally, with or without human intervention. …Hence, a bioenergy cycle can be managed while maintaining atmospheric conditions similar to those that allowed humans to evolve and thrive on Earth. In contrast, massive release of fossil fuel carbon alters this balance, and the resulting changes to atmospheric concentrations of GHGs will impact Earth’s climate for eons”
    It’s true that cellulosic ethanol will offer greater GHG reductions than today’s ethanol made from grains. We need a strong RFS in place to show investors that the US is serious about reducing GHGs from transportation fuels so that commercial-scale cellulosic plants will continue to be built here. The fact is other countries with their own biomass, and regulatory environments are competing for the investment dollars.
    Silverman continues his ethanol bashing by claiming that the industry has endured because of strong political support. But the oil industry has far greater influence in Washington. It spends tens of millions on lobbying and continues to receive $5 billion in tax breaks each year despite the fact that it is a well-established industry – one of the most profitable the world has ever seen. The ethanol business is relatively new, yet its federal tax breaks expired in 2011.
    The real reasons why ethanol is part of the energy landscape today is because it reduces GHGs and other harmful tailpipe emissions, supports hundreds of thousands of jobs, greatly reduces farmers’ reliance on federal subsidies, and enhances our energy security – while reducing gas prices. Ethanol is a win for the US consumer and anyone else that likes to breathe cleaner air.

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