Study Says Ethanol Does Not Qualify as a ‘Renewable Fuel’

Apr 21, 2014 by

A government-funded study conducted by the University of Nebraska finds that corn-based biofuels contribute more to global warming than gasoline.

Photo Credit: Jim Barber / Shutterstock

Ethanol and other biofuels made from corn contribute more to climate change than gasoline in the short term, according to a study released by the journal Nature Climate Change.

The study challenges the Obama admistration’s assertions that ethanol and other biofuel derivatives from corn are a cleaner gasoline alternative that will help fight climate change by reducing the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.

The peer-reviewed study, which cost $500,000 and was paid for with a federal grant, concludes that biofuels made with corn byproducts release 7% more greenhouse gases in the early years compared with conventional gasoline. Thus, they don’t even come close to meeting current federal standards to qualify as a renewable fuel source.

The federal government has given more than $1 billion to companies producing cellulosic biofuels because of their status as a renewable fuel source.

The report, released Sunday, was immediately criticized by producers of cellulosic biofuels and the Obama administration, who claim the research presents flawed data.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Nebraska, is one of the first to quantify how much carbon is dispersed into the atmosphere when corn residue is removed and used to make biofuel, instead of left on farm fields to replenish them with carbon.

The Environmental Protection Agency previously conducted a similar analysis and found that biofuels made from corn residue do meet federal renewable fuel standards. Renewable cellulosic biofuels must release 60% less carbon pollutants than gasoline to qualify. If a biofuel doesn’t meet that standard, it would be hard to produce and sell, as the industry relies on government subsidies of $1 per gallon.

Last year, the Associated Press published an article where it revealed that the EPA analysis of corn-based biofuels did not correctly assess the environmental consequences.

Despite the study’s harsh findings, its researchers claim that corn-based biofuels still hold promise as a greener alternative to gasoline in the long term.

Cliff Weathers covers environmental and consumer issues for AlterNet. He is a former Deputy Editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy, and Detroit Monthly among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers.

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