Thursday, February 7, 2008

Biofuel's GHG emissions

Although there could be a very large post refuting each claim point-by-point, I'm going to start with this one and make it brief and to the point. I thought we had moved away from the days of irresponsible scientific work by Pimentel, (the only researcher to declare that corn-based ethanol has a negative energy balance back in 2005), but from the looks of the Des Moines Register and other papers, this is not the case. A recent report released in the journal Science claims that corn-based ethanol will in fact increase the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. There are a few problems with this report that makes it smack of Pimentel. Let's be clear, I am totally for responsible scientific work, and I'm not claiming that these researcher's numbers are incorrect, however, their assertions are incorrect.
The reports released today and by Pimentel are incorrect because they incorrectly label ALL corn-based ethanol production. Pimentel used corn yields from Florida and New Mexico (average for the entire United States), along with the amount of fertilizer and water that would be needed to grow the corn in those states. This is wrong because no one is contemplating growing corn in those states -- that is where cellulosics, wind, or solar will prevail. So Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota -- the states where corn is grown for ethanol are not correctly represented in Pimentel’s study.
This latest study is incorrect in representing biofuels, particularly in the United States, because it claims that deforestation due to biofuels will increase GHG emissions. Let me be clear, the expansion of sugar cane in parts of Brazil, Palm Oil in Indonesia, and other examples in other areas of the world is a problem that should be closely monitored. This does not and will not happen in the United States so the researchers, by using numbers like "a 50% increase in GHG emissions," is like taking some kind of crude average that makes little sense and should have little to no impact on the United States. At this time, we import very low amounts of biofuel. 17.4 million gallons of ethanol, in fact, was imported into the United States last year. 17.4 million!!! For you math geeks out there, that's a whopping 0.25%. The United States DOES NOT import its ethanol, thanks in part to good policies such as an import tariff that prevents tropical contries from exporting ethanol grown on deforested land. What these researchers should be doing is making sure that the corn grown in the Midwest and the cellulosic feedstocks that will be used in the future are benefiting the GHG emissions over gasoline. If they had done that, they would find a value commonly agreed on as between 16% to 20% decreased GHG emissions for biofuels compared to gasoline, rather than focus on the kind of headline-grabbing research that they did, the whole United States and the world would be better off. If Indonesia is causing increased GHG emissions because of their biofuel usage, or India's biofuel usage, than THEY SHOULD stop producing biofuels, not the United States.
And finally, I know I said this would be short but looked what happened. A final point, though, is that the real thing that is lost in this bickering over GHG emission reductions is that ethanol and other biofuels were never meant to be a monolithic fuel. I mean this in two ways -- One is that ethanol is to be used in conjunction with new technologies such as hybrids, turbocharged engines, and general conservation to reduce our use of petroleum. Although greenhouse-gas emission reduction is a big part of the reason for this reduction, it is definitely not the only reason. 1) Energy independence in a world that may be approaching a general decrease in oil supply. 2) National Security in a world ravaged with wars and hostile dictators in most oil-rich regions. 3) Agricultural Security in how much ethanol has meant to the Midwest and the United States as a whole to agriculture. 4) Decreased GHG emissions, which is approximately 16% for corn-based ethanol grown in good old Iowa.
So before a researcher goes and tells you that the nitrogen fertilizer, water requirements, and low yields to grow corn in Oklahoma will result in higher GHG emissions than oil, think about what they are saying. Who cares!! What's that got to do with the price of tea in China? Tell us something that is relevant or don't say anything at all. The report in the journal Science is misleading and should be carefully analyzed to realize just how fantastical the estimations that they use could somehow encapsulate all corn-based ethanol production.

For the report in the Des Moines Register, follow the link below:


mus302 said...

I agree. I just finished doing a writeup on this also and we both expressed about the same tone. The bad part is that when the actual study comes out and we get to see the assumptions behind the conclusions I think it will be easy to see where they went wrong but the damage will have already been done.

berfunkle said...

I'm glad I read your take on this since I'm pro-bio overall, but the Register's report and a segment on the Nightly News made me wonder. I do take everything with a grain of salt, so your insight on all this reassured me that the recent reports might not be alarm bells, but instead, the type of reminders that we do constantly need. It's good to question and test all results, but some of the headlines can poison the atmosphere. By the way, the plans for the new bio-research center in Ames look impressive. Here's hoping all this work leads to energy independence and common sense.