Study claims biofuels are worse than gasoline

According to a study funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, ethanol and other corn-based biofuels are more damaging to the climate than gasoline, at least in the short-term. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Symbolique 2006

Biofuels are seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline and are considered a type of renewable energy. Until now, that is. A new study from the United States casts doubt on the role biofuels can play in averting climate change. Published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change on Sunday, the study found that corn-based biofuels produce 7 per cent more carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline because they release carbon residing in leftover corn cobs, stalks and leaves – material called ‘stover’ – that farmers would normally recycle back into the soil.

Less support from the government

The findings are likely to undercut the ethanol industry at a time when the U.S. government is already pulling back its support for biofuels that have helped the industry grown dramatically in recent years. In recent years, the U.S. government has spent $1 billion on ethanol production, half of which derives from corn, in a bid to boost the ailing U.S. economy. The ethanol industry generates

“I knew this research would be contentious,” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln Biology Professor Adam Liska, the study’s lead author. “I’m amazed it has not come out more solidly until now.” But Jan Koninckx, who oversees biorefineries for chemical giant DuPont, told the Associated Press that the study was simplistic. It assumed farmers and ethanol producers used unrealistically large amounts of stover. “The core analysis depicts an extreme scenario that no responsible farmer or business would ever employ because it would ruin both the land and the long-term supply of feedstock,” he said. “It makes no agronomic or business sense.”

Professor Liska disagrees, arguing that it does not matter how much stover biofuel refiners use because there is a one-to-one relationship between the amount of stover converted into biofuels and the amount of pollution and energy released when the material powered vehicles and other technology. “If less residue is removed, there is less decrease in soil carbon, but it results in a smaller biofuel energy yield,” he said.

EPA issuing new regulations in June

The U.S. government paid $500,000 for the study. Still, the EPA released a statement distancing the agency from Liska and his colleagues’ findings, saying it “does not provide useful information.” The EPA has already determined that corn-based ethanol produces 60 per cent less greenhouse gases than gasoline.

And yet even the EPA has been taking steps that suggest regulators are leery about the benefits of ethanol. The EPA is considering lowering the required proportion of biofuels that are supposed to be blended into fuels for vehicles. A final decision is expected in June. Legislation enacted in 2007 called for the EPA to push to require ethanol to comprise 15 per cent of vehicle fuels, but the automobile and oil industries argue that blend could harm older automobiles. The current mandated blend is 10 per cent ethanol.

Biofuel companies concerned

The EPA’s potential decision is worrying biofuel companies that have been racing to meet the agency’s current requirements, however. Companies have invested more than $5.7 billion in new refineries, the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Another $95 billion is on the drawing board.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Christopher Standlee, executive vice president of Abengoa Bioenergy, a Spanish company that is constructing a $500 million ethanol refinery in Kansas. “The whole purpose of the renewable fuel standard was to encourage investment to create brand-new technologies that would help the United States become more energy-independent and use cleaner and more efficient fuels,” he said. “We are just on the verge of doing that and now the EPA is talking about changing the rules.”

Even the Biotechnology Industry Organization admits that its members won’t be able to reach the EPA’s current goal of producing 79.5 billion litres of biofuels under the 2007 legislation. “It would take an enormous effort of deploying capital and labour and engineering,” said the group’s spokesman, Paul Winters.


Picture credit: European Commission – Audiovisual Service

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