New Studies Pile Up Against Ethanol

The new year has not been kind to ethanol lobbyists. A pair of new reports released in the last month undercut some of the key arguments the ethanol industry uses to support its favorite biofuel mandates, the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS).

The first, a new working paper from the World Resources Institute (WRI), examined the issue of using food for fuel, which the UN has described as a “crime against humanity.” The researchers conclude: “bioenergy that entails the dedicated use of land to grow the energy feedstock will undercut efforts to combat climate change and to achieve a sustainable food future.”

Indeed, the WRI report reiterates what we have long known—that biofuels make food more expensive, hurt the environment, and decrease the amount of arable land available for food production. Key findings include:

  • “Use of bioenergy at a globally meaningful level will push up costs of food, timber, and land.”
  • “In fact, burning biomass directly emits at least a little more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels for the same amount of generated energy.”
  • “A growing quest for bioenergy exacerbates this competition for land” that would otherwise be used for food production.

WRI recommends that lawmakers repeal mandates like the RFS and LCFS. As the researchers put it: “Governments should phase out the varied subsidies and regulatory requirements for transportation biofuels made from crops or from sources that make dedicated use of land.”

The second study, from the University of Michigan, reviewed more than 100 papers on the environmental impacts of biofuels. As the study’s author, Professor John DeCicco, explains, much of the existing literature underestimates the amount of carbon dioxide generated from ethanol:

The main problem with existing studies is that they fail to correctly account for the carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere when corn, soybeans and sugarcane are grown to make biofuels, said John DeCicco, a research professor at U-M’s Energy Institute.

“Almost all of the fields used to produce biofuels were already being used to produce crops for food, so there is no significant increase in the amount of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere. Therefore, there’s no climate benefit,” said DeCicco, the author of an advanced review of the topic in the current issue of Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment. [Emphasis mine]

The study finds that “policies used to promote biofuels—such as the U.S. [RFS] and California’s [LCFS]—actually make matters worse when it comes to limiting net emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide gas.” These findings build on numerous other studies demonstrating the negative environmental consequences of biofuels. Read more about that here.

Click here to learn more about the RFS and here to learn more about California’s LCFS.

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