Biofuels are worse than gasoline? Creative accounting leads to claim

Source: By Robert Brown, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Biofuels is getting renewed attention in the press these days, although in a manner that leaves experts in the field nonplussed.  News headlines regularly announce that “biofuels are worse than gasoline.” How can this be? We signed up to develop biofuels for its prospect to be “better than gasoline.”

Indeed, for the last decade I have counseled my students that renewable fuels are not inherently better than fossil fuels; it depends on how we grow and process biomass crops and use the resulting fuels. And yet the mantra of “biofuels is worse than gasoline” just doesn’t ring true. How is it worse than gasoline?

In the early years criticism focused on claims that biofuels like ethanol destroyed engines and took more energy to produce it than you got out of it. Technology addressed the first concern and analysis put to rest the second.

Then came the claim that growing biomass for biofuels would reduce the amount of crops available for export to the developing world, causing widespread burning of rainforest for food production. This burning would put so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that headlines warned, “Biofuels are worse than gasoline.” Researchers who made this claim used a complicated accounting process known as “life-cycle analysis” to support their arguments.  Within a couple of years more careful life-cycle analysis by academic researchers and the U.S. EPA found the original analysis employed specious assumptions about agriculture and markets. Certainly historical data on deforestation and growth of the biofuels industry does not support this indictment.

The genesis of the latest headlines is frustration among certain biofuels critics that life-cycle analysis no longer supports their criticism of biofuels. The solution, of course, is to throw out life-cycle analysis and propose a new kind of accounting. In this case, the premise is that the only thing that counts in carbon accounting is what leaves the tailpipe of a vehicle, not where the carbon comes from. If there is no difference between carbon from fossil fuels and carbon from biofuels, then the winner is the carbon source that requires the least energy to upgrade it into transportation fuels. From such a premise it is easy to claim that biofuels are worse than gasoline.

The problem is that it does matter where the carbon comes from and it does not take an expert to understand the difference. Petroleum extraction and conversion to transportation fuels is a one-way street for carbon entering the atmosphere: No one doubts that we can’t put the fossil fuels genie back in the ground after we have turned it into carbon dioxide. Biomass production and conversion to biofuels, on the other hand, is a merry-go-round that cycles carbon between “earth and sky” in an endless cycle.

Carbon dioxide emitted from burning biofuels is absorbed by growing biomass crops at roughly equal rates, the same carbon balancing employed by the Earth’s ecosystems. Unfortunately, the proposed change to counting carbon is no more than “creative accounting” to make a bad business model based on fossil fuels look sustainable.

Robert C. Brown is director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State University and the author of “Why Are We Producing Biofuels?”. Contact: