By on August 25, 2016

1-Ethanol-Gas-006

A new study from the University of Michigan adds (bio)fuel to the growing backlash against supposedly clean and green fossil fuel substitutes.

The study claims that the environmental benefits of ethanol and biodiesel — championed by both the federal government and the lucrative biofuel industry — are based on completely false assumptions, the Detroit Free Press reports.

The controversial study comes a week after the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General slammed the Obama administration for not living up to its promise to study the effects of biofuels. An Associated Press study from 2013 stated that biofuels have a greater impact on the environment than fossil fuels, yet the federal government only plans to issue a report on the missing studies next year — seven years behind schedule.

In his study, U-M Energy Institute research professor John DeCicco claims that biofuel production emits more greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) than gasoline. His research has come under fire for being sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute.

The government’s Renewable Fuel Standard, created in 2005 and expanded in 2007, is based on the false assumption that biofuels are inherently carbon-neutral, DeCicco claims. Plants, like corn, absorb carbon dioxide, so that should offset the CO2 created when burning biofuels, right? Wrong, says DeCicco.

Government policy scrutinizes fossil fuels to a greater degree when measuring environmental harm, he claims. For gas and diesel, lawmakers look at total emissions — those created through extraction, refining, and burning the final product. For biofuels, DeCicco claims the government only looks at the first half — farming and production. Tailpipe emissions aren’t factored into the equation because of the carbon-offset assumption.

The carbon dioxide absorbed by biofuel crops only offsets 37 percent of carbon emissions from its combustion, he says.

“Carbon neutrality has really just been an assumption,” DeCicco told the Detroit Free Press. “To verify the extent to which that assumption is true, you really need to analyze what’s going on on the farmland, where the biofuels are being grown. People haven’t done that in the past — they felt like they didn’t need to.”

DeCicco claims he discovered the problem four years ago, adding that, “A lot of interests have kind of congealed around this assumption.”

Corn production devoted to ethanol has tripled in the past decade, while soybean production geared towards biodiesel has more than doubled. Not surprisingly, the Renewable Fuels Association and various corn growers associations panned DeCicco’s study.

NFA senior vice-president Geoff Cooper claims the study’s findings have been “rejected by climate scientists, regulatory bodies and governments around the world, and reputable life-cycle analysis experts.”

Jim Zook, executive director of the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan and Michigan Corn Growers Association, echoed that sentiment. Other studies show that biofuels reduce greenhouse gasses, he told Freep. Side benefits, like a byproduct used as cattle feed and reduced dependency on foreign oil, can’t be ignored.

DeCicco counters the backlash by saying his studies are peer-reviewed.

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50 Comments on “New Study Claims Biofuels Harm the Environment Worse Than Fossil Fuels...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    If only there was an EPA study to either back up or refute this one…

    Oh right.

  • avatar
    jacob_coulter

    It won’t matter, politicians have to buy votes, so this nonsense of growing food to burn will continue.

    And environmentalists will conveniently overlook it (notice how the EPA won’t study it?) because they don’t want to rock the political alliance they have with “alternative energy” providers and their campaign donations.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      In all honesty, most scientifically-literate environmentalists like corn ethanol less than regular fuel. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club both come out against it.

      When the net/net is worse than normal petroleum, that tends to happen.

      Corn ethanol’s proponents tend to be either in agriculture (because it’s a great way to stabilize demand) and automotive (because it’s not difficult to engineer around and nets you easy credits). Most everyone else, including environmentalists, don’t like it at all.

      • 0 avatar
        MrGreenMan

        It’s a shame they don’t actually vote on these beliefs, which makes it as ephemeral as the idea that 74% of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track and needs a change in leadership.

        • 0 avatar
          psarhjinian

          Like many people, environmentalists aren’t single-issue voters: they have to either a) pick the candidates that get them most of what they prefer, b) vote for a small party and essentially see their vote wasted and risk someone truly awful getting in, or c) not vote.

          To put it this way: as an environmentalist, you could vote for Clinton and the Democrats, who would be mediocre but tolerable, or you could vote for Stein and/or note vote, which would risk Trump and the current crop of Republicans, which would be so much worse.

          • 0 avatar
            golden2husky

            Exactly. Could not have said it better myself. And most environmentalists are opposed to corn based fuels.

          • 0 avatar
            TrailerTrash

            Well, let me put it another way.
            You could vote for Clinton, which would put a known liar, corn lobbyist lover and known huckster (and family of dishonor) into the white house once again, or you can take a chance and put somebody who has never played the horrible political insider game that the Corn grower lobbyist have played and take a new chance and direction.

          • 0 avatar
            Hydromatic

            Hmmm….didn’t take long for the Clinton-bashing to get started.

      • 0 avatar
        WheelMcCoy

        Was going to say similarly. Ethanol is the odd duck where environmentalists and big oil actual agree.

      • 0 avatar
        jacob_coulter

        Opposing something in a white paper and exercising political muscle are two very different things.

        Environmentalists groups sure aren’t doing much to stop alternative fuels if they really believe its damaging to the environment. Amazing how every other tiny infraction though seems to get their attention.

  • avatar
    thelaine

    Just more “green” graft paid for by everyone else.

  • avatar
    JimC2

    But… I don’t understand… the bio fuel gas pump is painted green and it has the word “bio” on it. How can this be??

  • avatar

    The vast majority of these “green” programs do little or nothing to improve the environment. Now we see a major one that does more harm than good.

    Most are only “politically correct” mechanisms to funnel money to their buddies.

    • 0 avatar
      VoGo

      Slow down here. Corn ethanol was never about the environment. It has always been about buying Iowa votes. Environmentalists don’t want to extend ICE with corn; we want to watch it die, and quickly, replaced by superior technology.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    So a study by the American Petroleum Institute is against biofuels…
    Maybe we should wait for a reputable source.

    • 0 avatar
      Fred

      Expect to see a rebuttal from the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        “Expect to see a rebuttal from the Iowa Corn Growers Association.”

        Nawww, it will be something thinly veiled, like a study from the environmental engineering department of Iowa State/Iowa A&M/Iowa U/Iowa Tech…

    • 0 avatar
      operagost

      Maybe we shouldn’t pull genetic fallacies out when there is an actual problem that environmentalists (and conservationists) should both be concerned about: legally required environment impact studies were simply not performed.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      Except the petroleum industry is heavily involved in biofuels because making/refining chemicals is what they do. Does anyone really think they aren’t smart enough to make money wherever they can?

      Too often people reject valid news/science because of source bias. What matters is the actual content. I don’t know if this report is accurate, and that will be determined by its content, not its source or funding. If it’s flawed (and parts likely are), then it will be discernible or the results won’t be reproducible. I tend to believe the accusation that different standards of carbon accounting are applied to the different fuels. The numbers quoted sound odd, though.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        The API opposes the renewable fuel standard.

        The petroleum industry would prefer to sell E0.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          RFA is applauding the introduction of E25 compatible fuel dispensers.

          “WASHINGTON — Wayne Fueling Systems, a global leader in fuel dispensing technologies for retail fuel stations, announced today that all of its North American standard retail fuel dispensers will now be supplied as compatible and UL-Listed to all blends of ethanol up to 25 percent, becoming the first manufacturer to do so. The shift from E10 to E25 is effective immediately for Wayne Ovation™ fuel dispensers and by year-end for the Wayne Helix™ family of dispensers. E85 compatible dispensers will remain an option.”

          http://ethanolrfa.org/2016/08/rfa-applauds-wayne-fueling-systems-move-to-e25-in-standard-dispensers/

          Trade groups will spar over ethanol to their own benefit and proles get no say. Same as it ever was.

        • 0 avatar
          Jeff Semenak

          PCH; I would prefer to buy E0.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    I believe it was Robert Conquest who opined that the best way to understand large bureaucracies is to view them as being controlled by a cabal of their enemies. Thus, the EPA, supposedly guarding us from dangerous pollution, hammers Harley Davidson for a few hundred thousand motorcycles, few of which put up more than 4,000 miles a year, while ignoring the potential pollution of 300 million vehicles, most of which travel more than 4,000 a year. But, everyone hate Harley riders, while Archer Daniels Midlands sneezes and a thousand voices yell “Gesundheit”. Ah well, the best government you can buy, er, deserve.

    Before I get accused of being anti-EPA, my point is simply that the criticisms of bureaucracies dating back to the 1950s are still valid. See: Parkinson’s laws, Peter Principles, etc.

  • avatar
    benders

    It’s an incomplete study. The author’s methodology punishes biofuel because it’s using a larger percentage of the harvest. His math would look great for corn ethanol if the US cropland and harvest size was increasing at the same rate as biofuel use.

    To get an accurate assessment of the environmental impact, he needs to assess how the additional corn for biofuel use being removed from the market is being replaced.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    Huh; I thought the fact that bio-fuels were not really worth it was pretty well-known at this point; I don’t think this guy “discovered” it. (Fertilizer requires copious amounts of natural gas to produce, Ethanol distillation is energy-intensive, farming itself is fuel-intensive, etc.)

    And, environmental effects aside, biofuel crops divert water and arable land from the food crops they could be growing.

    On the plus side, we can thank biofuel for the cheap wholesale prices for Vodka!

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      How much arable land do you need in a country that throws away roughly half the food it grows before its even had a chance to be eaten.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      I’m not opposed to biofuel. I am opposed to corn-based fuel or anything requiring so much work/energy to make so little fuel.

      Fuel made from waste products and naturally occurring grasses/weeds is a great idea, but the capacity is limited. I’m all for algae-based fuel production that can be placed anywhere so it doesn’t displace farmland (rooftops, above parking lots). Hell, I’d even install algae facilities around power plants and route the exhaust through the algae to provide it with CO2 & H2O to accelerate growth and scrub emissions.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Putting aside the ecological aspect of this pro and cons of bio fuels the biggest losers are the taxpayers by the meddling of free enterprise and making it a socialised industry.

    It appears much money is wasted in these ventures that are sold to the voting public by politicians to support minorities like corn farmers.

    Why can’t corn farmers grow something else? How much do companies like Monsanto lobby the government?

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Switch grass would be a good alternative for a bio fuel. I’ve been told it is easier to process as well – albeit not in the same method that corn is.

      • 0 avatar
        benders

        You’ve got that backwards. Swtchgrass, like all potential sources of cellulosic ethanol, has the sugars locked inside cells with a tough outer membrane of cellulose. That has to stripped away before we can use the sugars to create biofuel.

    • 0 avatar
      NeilM

      “Putting aside the ecological aspect of this pro and cons of bio fuels the biggest losers are the taxpayers by the meddling of free enterprise and making it a socialised industry.”

      It’s not a “socialized industry,” it’s a regulated industry. Government regulations require a certain amount of ethanol content in gasoline. Free enterprise grows corn, then produces and sells that ethanol. Since free enterprise has demonstrated that it would happily strip mine paradise if left to its own devices, there should be no problem with regulatory ground rules.

      The problem arises when the regulations are either dishonest or ill conceived.

      The corn ethanol impact studies I’ve read about show that the impact is either slightly beneficial or slightly negative, the common factor being the slightness. These analyses are heavily dependent on a large number of assumptions that can be argued endlessly. So we’ve built a whole industry, with all the cost and disruption that entails, for a marginal result — good or bad.

      Contrast this with Brazil, which even in the late 1960’s when I first went there was producing ethanol fuel from sugar cane and from bagasse (the cellulosic waste after sugar is extracted from the cane).

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I’m not a biofuels fan, but there’s a lot of nonsense packed in here:

    “For biofuels, DeCicco claims the government only looks at the first half — farming and production. Tailpipe emissions aren’t factored into the equation because of the carbon-offset assumption.

    The carbon dioxide absorbed by biofuel crops only offsets 37 percent of carbon emissions from its combustion, he says.

    “Carbon neutrality has really just been an assumption,” DeCicco told the Detroit Free Press. “To verify the extent to which that assumption is true, you really need to analyze what’s going on on the farmland, where the biofuels are being grown. People haven’t done that in the past — they felt like they didn’t need to.”

    In the first paragraph, DeCicco says the government looks at farming and production of the fuel. In the last, he says they don’t “analyze what’s going on on the farmland”. How can both those statements be true?

    Regarding the 37% carbon offset in paragraph two: Plants get carbon from two sources: the air and the ground. If a plant gets 37% of its carbon from the air, the rest is probably coming from fertilizer, which should be accounted for in the “farming” part of the government’s analysis. Admittedly, I’m not familiar with the government’s analysis criteria, but this is very basic stuff.

    • 0 avatar
      benders

      I agree, there’s some nonsense here.

      With the 37% figure, I read that as current carbon emissions from biofuel are offset by the amount of crops grown in 2006 and used for biofuel.

      He set a baseline of carbon absorption in 2006 and judges every year’s carbon emissions from biofuel against that baseline.

  • avatar
    brn

    New study shows…..

    …. whatever you want it to show.

    Two things that jumped out to me:

    1. “sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute”. Surprise, the study showed what such an institute would want it to show.

    2. “Corn production devoted to ethanol has tripled in the past decade”. I cry foul. There’s no reason to devote production to ethanol. That would be wasteful. The exact same corn produces both ethanol and feed for livestock.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      I disagree with your second point. Product is produced for the intent of selling to a customer. Customers place orders for product, and that includes ethanol manufacturers. If their orders for corn go up, then the amount of corn production devoted to fulfilling their orders has to go up. If the market for cattle feed, HFCS, etc., is already satisfied, growing corn just to hope to sell to those customers is not the best strategy.

  • avatar
    vaujot

    In the comments on the previous article on this subject, Sirwired explained quite well why the new EPA study didn’t happen: Congress didn’t fund it. The interesting Story would be: who is to blame for that? I wouldn’t be surprised if the culprits were congress members from corn-producing States

    • 0 avatar
      brn

      Or are recipients of oil money.

      Conspiracy theory works both ways.

      • 0 avatar
        vaujot

        That’s fair enough. My suspicion is that the supporters of ethanol have more to lose than the other side. It seems to me that as long as it is not disproven, policy will be based on the gut-feeling that adding ethanol to gasoline is beneficial to the environment.

        Apart from that the point I would like to make is that congress deserves at least as much of the blame as the EPA/”the Obama administration” for the new study not being done. Which party has been controlling congress in recent years (hint: not Obama’s party)?

        • 0 avatar
          brn

          Truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

          Well, except when it comes to blaming congress. That’s usually true. Even if you put good people in congress, they can’t do good. It’s no longer structured that way.

  • avatar
    vaujot

    The previous article by Ronnie mentioned that in 2011, the EPA had done a study and one reason for not doing a new one three years later was that no significant new findings were to be expected in such short time. The 2011 study is easy to find: just google “Biofuels and the Environment: The First Triennial Report to Congress” (EPA/600/R-10/183F)” It’s more than 200 pages long. I might read the findings later and report back if I have time.

  • avatar
    thegamper

    I believe everyone in the industry and government for that matter knows that using corn to produce ethanol which is mandated to be used at the pump is just one of many farming subsidies. Nothing more.

    Several years ago when this became a hot topic and we were buying $4-$5/gallon gasoline, there were stories about Brazil’s ethanol industry which used sugarcane as the crop converted to ethanol. It was recognized at the time that sugarcane would yield far more ethanol per acre of farmland than corn could such that if we were serious about an environmentally friendly biofuel, we would not even consider using corn. It would be more efficient, far greener to import sugarcane or just import ethanol produced by a sugarcane growing country like Brazil.

    Corn based ethanol is just yet another case of money being taken from the taxpayer pocket to support corporate interests and profits. Thank you Congress.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    “Carbon neutrality has really just been an assumption,” DeCicco told the Detroit Free Press. “To verify the extent to which that assumption is true, you really need to analyze what’s going on on the farmland, where the biofuels are being grown. People haven’t done that in the past — they felt like they didn’t need to.”
    ____

    This is what one would refer to as a strawman argument.

    This guy has completely distorted the point about carbon neutrality, which should make it clear that he has an agenda. He’s trying to knock down an argument that nobody is making.

    You need go no further than the EIA website, which makes it quite clear what is meant by carbon neutrality. DiCerco is either incompetent or lying, and I doubt that he’s incompetent.

    _____

    Ethanol can be considered atmospheric carbon-neutral because the plants used to make fuel ethanol (such as corn and sugarcane, the two major feedstocks for fuel ethanol production) absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow and may offset the CO2 produced when ethanol is made and burned. In the United States, coal and natural gas are used as heat sources in the fermentation process to make fuel ethanol.

    The impact of greater ethanol use on net CO2 emissions depends on how ethanol is made. It also depends on whether or not indirect impacts on land use are included in the calculations. Growing plants for fuel is a controversial topic because some people believe the land, fertilizers, and energy used to grow biofuel crops should be used to grow food crops instead.

    The U.S. government is supporting efforts to produce ethanol with methods that use less energy than conventional fermentation, and that use cellulosic biomass, which requires less cultivation, fertilizer, and pesticides than corn and sugar cane.

    http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/?page=biofuel_ethanol_environment

  • avatar
    jimbob457

    Ethanol subsidies were never really about CO2 emissions. They were about OPEC price gouging – $100+ per barrel crude oil. Now that fracking is limiting crude oil prices to $40 to $70, the matter is ancient history.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      I doubt enough corn can be grown to produce enough ethanol to significantly affect crude prices. But on that topic, a better claim is that ethanol has a greater impact on the trade deficit by reducing money going offshore to pay for that crude. But even then, the limitation on how much ethanol can be produced limits the efficacy of that strategy.

      No, I suspect subsidies are purely a means to buy votes.

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