Saturday, February 16, 2008

Scientific Clarification

After last week's proclamation from Searchinger et. al that ethanol emits twice as much GHGs as gasoline does because of the release of soil carbon when turning grassland/forests into farmland, the real truth behind the numbers has been announced. Unfortunately for many, Searchinger's blatant disregard for scientific fact and wanton desire to generate a headline grabbing argument will probably sway a lot of people that are only slightly familiar with the problem towards a dislike and distrust of ethanol. What they will fail to see is that although the United States and the world needs to be constantly vigilant towards the deforestation or other environmental changes that might occur with large increases in biofuels production, this simply is simply not happening because of corn-based ethanol and it takes a person divorced from the reality that is the Midwest corn-belt to release a report such as Searchinger's last week titled, "Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases through Emissions from Land Use Change."
Luckily, none of you have to take my word on this issue. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee have written a very insightful response to Searchinger's piece totally refuting his results. Although they point out, as I would, that increasing ethanol production towards 15 billion gallons per year could affect these senarios, current fact proves that this is not occurring right now, which negates Searchinger's claim that ethanol is a GHG emitter and bolsters the fact that corn-based ethanol reduces GHG emissions 16% over gasoline... not to mention that this is RENEWABLE carbon.
Anyway, back to the Argonne report, they found that while demand for corn from the ethanol industry has increased, this has not affected domestic supply and exports of corn have maintained the 2 billion bushel per year level that occurred pre-ethanol demand. Furthermore, the research from Argonne saw little land-use change in the United States due to increased corn demand because of ethanol and refuted Searchinger's claim that transitioning to cellulosic feedstocks would have an adverse affect by forcing corn onto marginal land. Argonne studies have found that more than 1 billion tons of biomass are currently available on marginal land, (such as trees, switchgrass, shrubs), and so these two feedstocks towards making ethanol would not compete.
The bottom line is that studies such as Searchinger's should have been welcomed. If he had released the report by saying that the study was a scenario of what could occur, then a discussion of more moderate increases in corn-based ethanol production or of regulations towards ensuring that imported ethanol doesn't originate from countries that practice deforestation. Instead of doing something like that to promote responsible dialogue, Searchinger chose to grab headlines and to scare people into disliking ethanol for no good reason. (I saw him interviewed last night and he didn't present the arguments with any caveats towards how the report should be interpreted).
I'm just glad that Argonne and others moved quickly to point out that Searchinger's report should be taken for what it is -- a look into what could happen, not what is going on. With the increased production of ethanol and the evolving debate over its merits and problems, this will not be the last report that seeks to scare and confuse the public. Hopefully the truth continues to be told.

For the response from Argonne labs: (Read it if you've got the time, it's very good)

1 comment:

mus302 said...

I am especially glad that researchers from Argonne shared their thoughts on this since the modeling was done with the GREET program developed at Argonne. There probably isn't anybody more qualified to critique this study than them.