The producers of biofuels have long claimed that their use was considerably better for the planet than gasoline, but a new study is effectively dismissing these claims. The new study published in the journal Climatic Change today suggests that the burning of ethanol in cars and the production of corn in order to make biofuels produces more carbon pollution than gasoline does in a study that crunched eight years of data.
Study funded by the American Petroleum Institute
Clearly this group has a horse in this race, so perhaps the study should be taken with a grain of salt. The American Petroleum Institute funded the study which was conducted by the University of Michigan Energy Institute and its scientists and largely goes against past studies which use an approach called life-cycle analysis.
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“I’m bluntly telling the life-cycle analysis community, ‘Your method is inappropriate,’” said professor John DeCicco, who led the team of researchers and is the lead author of their findings. “I evaluated to what extent have we increased the rate at which the carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere?”
Those that have trumpeted the benefits of biofuels through lifecycle analysis have long maintained that all carbon pollution from biofuels is canceled out by the amount absorbed by the crops grown to make biofuel. However, DiCicco’s article and his teams work, which looked at the years 2005 to 2013 suggests as little as 37% of the carbon was absorbed by the crops.
“The question, ‘How does the overall greenhouse gas emission impact of corn ethanol compare to that of gasoline?’ does not have a scientific answer,” DeCicco said. “What I can say definitively is that, whatever the magnitude of the emissions impact is, it is unambiguously worse than petroleum gasoline.”
Many criticize the report
Not surprisingly, a number of scientists whose work and studies use lifecycle analysis and are in direct disagreement with today’s study were quick to comment. Michael Wang of the Argonne National Laboratory calls the study “highly questionable” while suggesting that it’s flawed given that only domestic biofuel production was looked at rather than all the farms worldwide involved in biofuel production.
Whether DeCicco’s findings add up to a hit job paid for by API, which has sued the federal government and California for biofuel practices is very much up in the air. In addition to Dr. Wang, Daniel Schrag, a geology professor at Harvard and advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency says,“In the long run, there’s no question that biofuels displacing petroleum is a benefit.” He added, “It’s just a question of how long you have to wait.”
Schrag is insistent that eight years is just not enough of a window to look at to measure the benefits of biofuels and maintains that biofuels are 10 to 50 percent better than gasoline over time.
“What timescale should we look at?,” Schrag said. “Some of the fundamental questions about timescale are not scientific questions. They are societal questions.”
On the other hand is Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton researcher agrees with the study and applauded a new approach away from lifecycle analysis.
“The U.S. is not coming close to offsetting the carbon released by burning biofuels through additional crop growth,” Searchinger said.
This argument is likely to continue for some time, but it’s certain that the Obama administration is a big proponent of biofuels.