Study raises questions about producing ethanol from natural gas

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2013

As natural gas has become more abundant and cheap in the United States, several companies have looked to it, instead of corn and other plant-based materials, to produce ethanol.

But a new study by an oil and gas industry-funded research group suggests that converting natural gas to ethanol may not offer any benefits over other feedstocks. According to the analysis released yesterday by the Institute for Energy Research, the conversion of natural gas to ethanol may increase carbon dioxide emissions and lose a substantial amount of energy in the process.

“Producing ethanol from natural gas is expensive, emits significant amounts of additional carbon dioxide, and is wasteful of the energy content as well as the hydrogen content of the natural gas that can be used more efficiently in alternate applications,” the study found.

The analysis, conducted by chemical engineer Lindsay Leveen, comes amid a push by some lawmakers to include ethanol from natural gas in the renewable fuel standard, through which U.S. EPA sets yearly levels of conventional ethanol and advanced biofuels that must be blended into the nation’s motor fuel supply.

“The RFS’s singular focus on corn ethanol translates into higher food costs for working families as well as higher feed costs for livestock producers,” Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) said when introducing legislation earlier this year to open up the RFS to natural gas (Greenwire, May 15).

But according to the study from IER, the life-cycle carbon dioxide emissions from creating ethanol from natural gas are higher than those of petroleum-based gasoline.

Even with technological improvements, the study predicts that ethanol from natural gas is unlikely to ever meet the carbon dioxide reductions set forth in the renewable fuel standard. In order to qualify for the standard, a renewable fuel must reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 20 percent compared with a gasoline base line.

Converting natural gas to ethanol also results in a 50 percent loss in the energy content of the gas, according to the study.

“Any public policy that supports government subsidization of [ethanol from natural gas] will be misguided from an emissions perspective and wasteful from a fiscal perspective,” the study says.

The Institute for Energy Research has long been opposed to the renewable fuel standard as a whole, and the study reflects that opposition. Leveen calls the standard “a policy that requires consumers to use less efficient, more expensive fuel.”

Consumers would be better served using compressed natural gas directly in vehicles, Leveen argues.

“A simple alternate application such as CNG vehicles will lower carbon emissions and improve the efficiency of our collective energy usage in transportation,” the study says.

The view is mirrored by some natural gas supporters in Congress who are pushing to create incentives to pave the way for using compressed or liquefied natural gas directly as a transportation fuel.

At an event yesterday in Washington, D.C., Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he viewed natural gas as a means of moving away from using ethanol.

“If you looked at the host of the investments we could make in energy conservation, in alternative fuels, you could pinpoint this one,” Burr said. “This could enable us to walk away from ethanol, which isn’t cost-effective, which was heavily subsidized, which may not on a marketplace model compete, and we could walk away from it and feel fairly comfortable we fill that gap and more just by shifting to LNG on heavy trucks.”

Some biofuel producers have thrown their weight behind natural gas, arguing that it offers the best, lowest-cost feedstock.

Coskata Inc. last year, for example, announced that it was shifting its focus from woody biomass, the feedstock for cellulosic biofuel, to natural gas after demonstrating that it could produce ethanol from gas at a cheaper price per gallon.

“We have way more gas than we know what to deal with at this point, which solves a critical issue for those of us who can use natural gas as a feedstock,” William Roe, president and CEO of Coskata, said recently, “because it’s the one feedstock that is very, very cheap today that is in excess of what we can possibly imagine using and gathering.”