Ethanol: It’s Even Worse Than You Thought

ETHANOL: IT’S EVEN WORSE THAN YOU THOUGHT….A few days ago two studies were published showing that biofuels like ethanol had no positive effect on global warming. In fact, it turns out that they’re actively bad for the environment. One of the studies concluded that use of corn-based ethanol produces twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as regular gasoline over a 30-year period, and only becomes carbon neutral after 167 years.

I didn’t blog about it at the time because I was waiting for biofuels guru Mike O’Hare to weigh in and tell me if these studies were legit. Last night he finally did, and he says this is the real deal:

There is now more than good reason to expect that no biofuel from seeds, possibly none (even cellulosic) grown on land that could grow food, will reduce global warming if substituted for petroleum products. The insight of the papers discussed in the article, and work by some others who have been worrying at this bone for years without anyone paying enough attention, is a remarkable synthesis of economics and plant/earth science.

The first piece of the puzzle is the recognition that if a piece of forest is cut down, or natural grassland plowed up, to grow biofuel, decay and/or burning of what was there before releases an enormous puff of carbon into the atmosphere that needs to be counted along with the carbon releases of the biofuel crop. Even spreading the initial release over decades of biofuel growing, it is large enough to push almost any biofuel’s global warming intensity way above that of gasoline, especially because it all occurs right at the beginning of the future rather than a few years or decades down the line.

[Further technical discussion…..]

Small amounts of diesel and ethanol will probably be available from trash and agricultural waste like the tree branches and bark scraps the logging industry leaves around to decay, or cornstalks, or McDonald’s used frying oil, and these are environmentally OK because they don’t induce land use conversion….And many smart folks in this business expect that algae growing in tanks in the desert (for example) can eventually be taught to make a lot of diesel cheap, with no land use implications. But for now, and for a while, biofuels generally are going over a very rough patch of road, a patch that may go on for years before new technologies smooth it out again.

I’ve never been a fan of corn ethanol, and now it looks like cellulosic ethanol might not be worthwhile either unless it’s grown on wasteland. Better technology might eventually help out with that, or maybe those algae tanks will pan out. In the meantime, though, corn ethanol subsidies, which looked merely stupid in the past, now look catastrophically idiotic. With the Iowa primaries safely over, surely it’s safe for our brave presidential candidates to use these studies as an excuse to do an about-face and promise to kill corn ethanol subsidies in their first term. Right?