Study: Biofuels worse for climate change than gasoline

Source: Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press • Posted: Friday, August 26, 2016

Ferman Milster with the University of Iowa discusses Miscanthus grass and other bio fuels the UI looks to use to generate power on campus. Benjamin Roberts / Iowa City Press-Citizen

Ethanol groups blasted the latest study criticizing the impact renewable fuels have on the environment, calling a University of Michigan report published Thursday a “desperate attempt” to discredit the popular energy alternative.

The study, funded by the American Petroleum Institute, said biofuels created from crops such as corn or soybeans cause the emission of more climate change-causing carbon dioxide than gasoline.

The new study from U-M Energy Institute research professor John DeCicco, is sure to cause a stir in an expanding debate over whether biofuels, and the farmland increasingly devoted to them, are actually providing the environmental and climate benefits many expected.

“This pulls the rug out from under over a decade’s worth of public policy in this area,” DeCicco said.

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, criticized the study as a retread of prior work by a “so-called researcher.”

Shaw said organizations ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to university scientists and national labs, among others, have studied renewable fuels and determined that ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emission.

“His work has been and continues to be funded directly and indirectly by Big Oil, and his dubious conclusions bear that out,” Shaw said.

Since the federal government mandated the use of renewable fuels in the U.S. fuel mix in 2005 and expanded that use in 2007, the share of the annual corn crop devoted to biofuels has more than tripled to 5.225 billion bushels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The amount of U.S-produced soybean oil devoted to the production of biodiesel fuel doubled over the past eight years, to more than 5 billion pounds.

Ethanol is important in Iowa, which relies on renewable fuel production for jobs, income and to help farmers by increasing demand for their corn and soybeans. Iowa’s 43 ethanol plants produced a record of just over 4 billion gallons in 2015, about 27 percent of the nation’s production.

Matt Merritt, spokesman for POET Biorefining in Emmetsburg and area farmer Bruce Nelson talk about the opportunities which have come from the growth of the ethanol industry in Iowa.

DeCicco’s research challenges a premise at the foundation of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard: an assumption that biofuels are inherently carbon-neutral; that is, that the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere when biofuel is burned and an engine releases its exhaust is offset by the amount of carbon the corn or soybeans removed from the atmosphere during its growth cycle.

“Carbon neutrality has really just been an assumption,” he said. “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.

“I swallowed hard when I first, on a mathematical basis, uncovered the problem, which was about four years ago. A lot of interests have kind of congealed around this assumption.”

Using U.S. Department of Agriculture cropland production data, determining the chemical composition of crops and accounting for all of the carbon from the plants, DeCicco created a “harvest carbon” factor. Over the past decade, as the consumption of corn ethanol and biodiesel more than tripled in the U.S., the increased carbon uptake by the crops only offset 37% of carbon dioxide emissions from biofuel combustion, DeCicco said.

“When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline,” he said.

That notion is getting serious push-back from the Renewable Fuels Association, a leading trade organization for the ethanol industry.

DeCicco “has been making these arguments for years, and for years they have been rejected by climate scientists, regulatory bodies and governments around the world, and reputable life-cycle analysis experts,” said association senior vice president Geoff Cooper. “It’s flattering that API has taken such an interest in the climate benefits of biofuels; but the public would be better served if API spent its time and money examining and owning up to the very real — and very negative — climate impacts of petroleum.”

Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, called the report “another desperate attempt to discredit the nation’s most successful clean energy program.”

She referenced a 2012 report from the Argonne National Laboratory, a non-profit research laboratory operated by the University of Chicago for the Department of Energy, that estimated ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 34 percent over its life cycle.

DeCicco countered that all of his research is peer-reviewed, meaning other scientists in the field have, and will continue to, scrutinize it. As for the petroleum industry funding, DeCicco said he years ago reached out to other more environmentally oriented funding sources that he declined to specify, who weren’t interested in funding his examination of life-cycle analysis.

“I come into this with a pretty deep scientific reputation as a straight shooter that just lets the numbers go where they will,” he said. “The biofuels lobby and the people who developed these models kind of circled the wagons when questions started getting raised.”

Emily Cassidy, a research analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said DeCicco is looking into an area that “deserves a lot of scrutiny.”

“There is mounting evidence that the Renewable Fuel Standard has been bad for the environment and the climate, and this paper is a new take on that,” she said. “There are some fuels that could be beneficial to the climate, but those fuels would mostly be using crop waste and woody biomass that wouldn’t be used for other things.”

Reporter Christopher Doering contributed to this story. Contact Keith Matheny: (313) 222-5021 or Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny