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University of Michigan’s Energy Institute research professor John DeCicco, Ph.D., believes that rising carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming and, therefore, humans must find a way to reduce its levels in the atmosphere — but ethanol is the wrong solution. According to his just-released study, political support for biofuels, particularly ethanol, has exacerbated the problem instead of being the cure it was advertised to be.

DeCicco and his co-authors assert: “Contrary to popular belief, the heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas emitted when biofuels are burned is not fully balanced by the CO2 uptake that occurs as the plants grow.” The presumption that biofuels emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases, or GHG, than gasoline is, according to DeCicco: “misguided.”

His research has upended the conventional wisdom and angered the alternative fuel lobbyists. The headline-grabbing claim is that biofuels are worse for the climate than gasoline.

Previously, based on life cycle analysis, it has been assumed that crop-based biofuels, were not just carbon neutral, but actually offered modest net GHG reductions. This, DeCicco says, is the “premise of most climate related fuel policies promulgated to date, including measures such as the LCFS (California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard) and RFS [the federal Renewable Fuel Standard passed in 2005 and expanded in 2007).”

The DeCicco study, "Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use", uses Annual Basis Carbon, or ABC. accounting — which does not treat biofuels as inherently carbon neutral. Instead, it treats biofuels as “part of a dynamic stock-and-flow system.” Its methodology “tallies CO2 emissions based on the chemistry in the specific locations where they occur.”

DeCicco explains “Growing the corn that becomes ethanol absorbs no more carbon from the air than the corn that goes into cattle feed or corn flakes. Burning the ethanol releases essentially the same amount of CO2 as burning gasoline. No less CO2 went into the air from the tailpipe; no more CO2 was removed from the air at the cornfield. So where’s the climate benefit?”

Much of the farmland that is now dedicated to ethanol, was growing corn to feed cattle and chickens — also known as feedstock. The RFS requires an ever-increasing amount of ethanol be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. Since the RFS became law in 2005, the amount of land dedicated to growing corn for ethanol has increased from 12.4 percent of the overall corn crop to 38.6 percent. While the annual supply of corn has increased by 17 percent, the amount going into feedstock has decreased from 57.5 percent to nearly 38 percent.

Adding to the biofuels-are-worse-than-gasoline accounting are the effects from producing ethanol. You have to cook it and ferment it — which requires energy. In the process, CO2 bubbles off. By expanding the quantity of corn grown, prairie land is busted up and stored CO2 is released.

DeCicco says: “it is this domino effect that makes ethanol worse.”

How much worse?

The study looks at the period with the highest increase in ethanol production due to the RFS: 2005-2013. The conclusion is that the increased carbon dioxide uptake by the crops was only enough to offset 37 percent of the CO2 emissions due to biofuel combustion.

DeCicco’s research finds, that while further work is needed to examine the research and policy implications going forward, “it makes more sense to soak up CO2 through reforestation and redouble efforts to protect forests rather than producing biofuels, which puts carbon rich lands at risk.”

Regardless of differing views on climate change, we can agree that more trees are a good thing and that “using government mandates and subsidies to promote politically favored fuels is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc., and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy. She hosts a weekly radio program: America’s Voice for Energy — which expands on the content of her weekly column.

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