New report shows ethanol falls short

Published on Wednesday, 23 April 2014 22:16 - Written by

Actually, the news is worse for ethanol than the latest headlines indicate. While a new federal government study shows that it’s not the “green” fuel that many portray it as, that study doesn’t take into account ethanol’s real impact.

“Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term, a study shows, challenging the Obama administration’s conclusions that they are a much cleaner oil alternative and will help combat climate change,” the AP reported. “A $500,000 study paid for by the federal government and released Sunday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change concludes that biofuels made with corn residue release 7 percent more greenhouse gases in the early years compared with conventional gasoline.”

That’s bad enough, but here’s what the study fails to say. First, it doesn’t do a serious study of whether ethanol truly helps the environment. And also, the study doesn’t do a cost-benefit analysis that includes the $1 billion in federal subsidies that sector of the biofuels industry has received.

The fuel in question isn’t corn-based ethanol, a product that drives up food costs and also disappoints informed environmentalists, because its net effect is to increase carbon output. Instead, we’re talking about the ethanol made from the waste left behind, after corn production. Usually, that material is plowed under by the farmers.

“The research is among the first to attempt to quantify, over 12 Corn Belt states, how much carbon is lost to the atmosphere when the stalks, leaves and cobs that make up residue are removed and used to make biofuel, instead of left to naturally replenish the soil with carbon,” AP explained. “The study found that regardless of how much corn residue is taken off the field, the process contributes to global warming.”

In other words, there’s no net carbon benefit to producing cellulosic biofuels (which are more expensive).

But what about biofuels in general? Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledges that at best, they’re a wash.

“Increasing bioenergy crop cultivation poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity,” the IPCC’s newest report said.

So while the federal study is bad enough, it doesn’t present the whole picture — that overall, biofuels don’t live up to their promise. It’s a little like saying that there are real safety concerns about the below-deck stairs — on the Titanic.

Second, the report doesn’t do a cost-benefit analysis of ethanol. Why is that important? Because we’re spending billions of tax dollars to support the industry — $1 billion for cellulosic ethanol alone.

Even those on the left recognize that ethanol subsidies benefit few — mostly, well-connected farming groups.

Kevin Drum, writing for the left-leaning Mother Jones magazine, called ethanol subsidies “catastrophically idiotic.”

“In fact, ethanol subsidies are such obviously appalling policy that it’s one of the rare areas that both liberals and conservatives agree about,” he wrote last year.

Still, there’s no need to pile on ethanol. Let’s let the latest bad news stand on its own. Cellulosic ethanol is bad for the environment.