Will Using More Biofuels Be Good for the Environment? Two Experts Square Off.

Source: By The Wall Street Journal • Posted: Sunday, January 22, 2023

Proponents say it’s a cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Opponents say the environmental promise is overblown.

An ethanol refinery in Chancellor, S.D., one of many in the Midwest.
An ethanol refinery in Chancellor, S.D., one of many in the Midwest. STEPHEN GROVES/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In its push for greener energy, Washington is giving biofuels a boost.

Biofuels, such as corn ethanol, are made from plants or other organic matter, then mixed with conventional gasoline or diesel. The amount of fossil fuel used is reduced, and so the resulting mixture burns more cleanly. The more biofuel in the mixture, the cleaner it burns.

Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest proposal under the Renewable Fuel Standard program, 20.8 billion gallons of renewable fuel are required to be mixed with petroleum-based fuel in 2023, up less than 1% from 2022’s target. By 2025, the volume grows to 22.7 billion gallons.

The agency said that the regulations would reduce U.S. oil imports by up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day between 2023 and 2025, and save Americans between $200 million and $223 million a year.

Proponents of the biofuel standard argue that it has added to U.S. fuel supplies, decreased consumer costs—and is a powerful tool for helping the environment. But opponents say biofuel’s environmental promises are overblown, and that making biofuel from edible plants is a poor use of land and crops.

Daniel P. Schrag, professor of public policy, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard University, argues the case for biofuels. Carlisle Ford Runge, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota, argues against them.

Corn for biofuels being harvested next to an ethanol production facility in Milton, Wis.Photo: Tannen Maury/EPA/Shutterstock

YES: The fuel is low-cost, effective and beneficial

By Daniel P. Schrag

To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we must eliminate fossil fuels. Cheap wind and solar have started to bring emissions down. But one part of our energy system remains resistant to change: liquid fuels for transportation.

Even when all passenger vehicles are electric, this will only eliminate half of our current oil consumption. What do we do about fuel for ships, trucks, trains and airplanes?

To meet our ambitious goals for carbon emissions, biofuels are likely to be a critical part of our energy mix. They have the greatest likelihood of competing with oil on price; they require little new infrastructure; and they offer economic opportunities for developing nations that will incentivize them to participate in the global climate-mitigation effort.

A larger share

Biofuels—today mostly ethanol and some biodiesel—represent 7% of U.S. liquid-fuel consumption. In the future, we should prepare for biofuels to take an even larger share—because they offer some strong advantages.

Unlike many other forms of green alternatives to oil, biofuels in some forms can be used in existing pipelines and storage tanks, existing trucks, ships and airplanes, and in some cases existing refineries. That means biofuels are likely to be cost-competitive—or close to cost-competitive—with today’s oil prices, and far less expensive than any other proposed solutions.

Yes, there are other possible substitutes, such as hydrogen made from renewable electricity, either directly or through other chemicals like ammonia. These options may have a role in a low-carbon future, but all depend on research and development to demonstrate their viability and bring costs down. The one technology that is already used at significant scale is biofuels.

What’s the problem, then? Some environmentalists and other critics make a number of complaints.

Ethanol Growth

Fuel ethanol production in the U.S.

Source: USDA, Economic Research Service using data from U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration

Some of them point to studies from over a decade ago that show corn ethanol—the major biofuel in the U.S.—has marginal climate benefits, and to more recent studies that say corn ethanol has caused environmental problems. Growing corn, they say, harms the soil and water and uses precious farmland that could be devoted to more useful crops, not to mention exploiting new land that is best left uncultivated, such as grasslands and forests.

Early studies that showed slim benefits for corn ethanol are out of date with modern ethanol refineries, many of which use wood and natural gas as fuel instead of older plants that used coal. The plants have better efficiency in the fermentation process and take advantage of reductions in carbon emissions across the energy system. New studies show that the carbon benefits are much larger than the early estimates, so corn-ethanol production has paid off whatever carbon debt came initially from clearing the land, reducing emissions overall year after year.

Some critics decry the growth of corn production in the U.S., ignoring the fact that corn acreage today is down over the past 10 years—while yields have risen enormously.

A look to the future

But the future of biofuels does not lie in corn ethanol, so arguing about the costs and benefits is missing the point. Right now, we largely rely on biofuels from grain, such as corn or soybean. But biofuels from cellulosic feedstocks that use the stems and leaves of plants are in the works, including organic waste such as corn stover.

The development of economically competitive biofuels from woody material—whether crops like switchgrass or just agricultural waste—will be a major breakthrough, as it would increase overall yields and increase the carbon benefit. We need to invest in these solutions if we are serious about addressing climate change.

A major concern is that the growth of biofuels will threaten biodiversity, as more and more forest is displaced to grow energy crops. Indeed, palm oil in Southeast Asia has a terrible track record, driving massive deforestation of tropical rainforest.

But the growth of biofuels need not hurt global conservation efforts. In many poor countries, particularly in the tropics, a global biofuels industry represents one of the best opportunities for sustained economic growth. With that growth will come new investments in agricultural capacity, which can increase yields and reduce the demand for clearing new land.

To be sure, we must be careful in how we expand biofuels. There is no doubt that protecting existing forests from development is essential. But solving climate change requires difficult choices. If we are serious about displacing jet fuel and diesel fuel, we can’t afford to give up on biofuels as they represent our best chance at a low-carbon, low-cost alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

Dr. Schrag is a professor of public policy, the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and a professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard University. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

President Biden speaking at a bioprocessing facility in Menlo, Iowa, in April.Photo: Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg News

NO: It’s not as good as advertised—and it’s environmentally harmful

By Carlisle Ford Runge

When ethanol mandates requiring corn-based alcohol to be blended with gasoline were introduced in 2007, they were awash in claims that it was good for the environment. But as researchers dug deeper, it became clear that the opposite was true.

The ethanol emperor has no clothes.

Not only has using more corn for ethanol led to more environmental pollution, especially soil erosion and water-quality impairment, but the life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions from using more ethanol blends turn out to be worse than unblended gasoline itself, according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year. Ethanol is not only a loser for climate-change mitigation but is actually environmentally counterproductive.

Distressing findings

Indeed, the biggest beneficiaries of the corn-ethanol mandates appear to be corn growers themselves. Another study last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the fuel-blending requirements in 2007, forcing ethanol to be mixed with gasoline, goosed the demand for corn and bumped up its price. Corn prices rose from 2008 to 2016 by 30%, stimulating price increases for other commodities such as wheat and soybeans to the tune of 20%. This led to expansion in U.S. corn production by nearly 9%, equal to 6.9 million extra corn acres.

The shifts into corn for ethanol were accompanied by more intensive use of fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, with attendant impacts on soil and water. Fertilizer use rose by 2% to 8% in each year from 2008 to 2016, leading to 3% to 5% increases in nitrate leaching into groundwater and phosphorus runoff into streams and rivers throughout the Corn Belt—the major contributor to the hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

The result of all this? Even more carbon—which refutes earlier studies by the Environmental Protection Agency, widely cited by ethanol advocates.

“The EPA’s original estimates suggested that U.S. land use change would sequester carbon and help improve the carbon footprint of ethanol. But in retrospect, we now know it did just the opposite,” according to one of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences papers. “Rather than reduce the carbon intensity of ethanol to 20% lower than gasoline, it looks like it actually increases it to that much higher than gasoline.”

Ethanol is mixed with conventional gasoline or diesel to make a fuel that burns more cleanly. Photo: Brian Snyder/REUTERS

An uncertain future

While ethanol can be made from feedstocks such as switchgrass, woodchips and even newspaper, gathering and converting these materials is roughly twice the cost of corn. Even now, the cost of corn ethanol is dauntingly high. If biofuels were cost competitive with petroleum fuels then they should not require mandates and subsidies paid in all 50 states. While some advocates argue that biofuels can use existing infrastructure, thereby reducing costs, ethanol is actually not usable in many pipelines and will corrode them.

It can be argued that petroleum fuels are also subsidized, but this has nothing to do with the issue of their impacts on the environment. Both are negative.

To be sure, the future remains uncertain. There may be new technologies that lower the costs of options like switchgrass or algae, and these can be scaled up without adverse environmental effects. And people who have already lost a lot of money investing in them will start actually making money.

All of these are very big ifs.

Research has questioned the environmental wisdom of blended-fuel mandates from the outset. The new findings only highlight the downsides and costs. It is now time to focus on energy strategies that directly confront climate challenges, not on biofuels but on electric vehicles that require little or no liquid fuel at all.

Dr. Runge is the Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.