The Ethanol Bandwagon Hits a Bump in the Road

Carbon neutral? Not so much.

The majority of scientists studying climate change (formerly known as global warming) cite carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions as being the most villainous of “greenhouse gases” affecting the atmosphere. In response, governments in countries around the world have taken steps to curb industrial and vehicular CO2 emissions.

In the United States, where government has become increasingly more focused on regulating, rather than developing practical solutions, knee-jerk reactions have become an integral part of the development of “proactive” responses.

The current philosophy seems to be that over-reacting is the preferred course of action. Sitting back and taking a hard look at facts, before rushing to a conclusion is the over-riding principle only when quickly taking a pro-active stance would prove troublesome or embarrassing to certain high-ranking personnel.

But, like Hillary “I don’t remember, I didn’t do it, what difference does it make” Clinton, I have digressed from the topic at hand, which is one of the knee-jerk reactions to the emission of dastardly CO2, the primary attacker against the atmospheric integrity that keeps planet earth, cool, calm and collected.

(Taxing carbon emissions is coincidentally, the most widely favored approach to stemming the tide of anthropogenic-induced climate change.)

With respect to overall CO2 emissions, the scientific consensus is that the burning of fossil fuels is primary contributor to increasing levels.

So in spite of the fact that a 2009 study by Greenpeace stated,

Carbon released from slash-and-burn techniques, plus the loss of forest themselves, account for some 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a larger share than that from all the world’s cars, planes, ships, trains, and trucks combined.”, the US government chose to label vehicular CO2 emissions as a prime offender, and mandate a reduction in the burning of petroleum-based fuels. “Renewable fuel sources” is the battle cry of the anti-petroleum coalition, and ethanol is lauded as the fuel to bring climate change salvation.

Certainly, it behooves every country to make a concerted effort to reduce the emission of harmful, and on the surface, a reduction in the burning of petroleum-based fuels, and an increase in the use of alternative fuels seems to be a step in the right direction- “seems” being the operative word. In the US, the primary source of ethanol motor fuel is corn. That works out well not only for farmers in the corn belt, and the politicians who represent them, but for the host of representatives, senators and bureaucrats who have jumped on the “renewable fuels” bandwagon. Rumbling around the campaign trail, fueled no doubt by corn-based ethanol, the bandwagon provides an excellent platform from which to crow about steps being taken to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, according to the bandwagon troupe, your government is hard at work, securing the planet’s atmospheric integrity and thereby saving future generations from burning up on a planet with hell-like temperatures. Yet it should come as no surprise, that the bandwagon banter contains a few flaws in its representation of ethanol’s impact on CO2 emissions.

The bump in the road

According to a study done by University of Michigan Energy Institute research professor John DeCicco, ethanol created from crops like corn and soybeans actually cause higher levels of carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline.

To no one’s surprise, DeCicco’s findings have been refuted by the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the ethanol fuel industry. The association points to the fact that DeCicco’s research was funded by the American Petroleum Institute as the primary reason for labeling the findings incorrect. DeCicco’s assertions are obviously troubling not only for the ethanol-production crowd, but for everyone who has been singing the praises of ethanol.

In fact, it appears that Professor DeCicco’s study has created a very real speed bump in the road being traveled by the “renewable fuels” bandwagon. That speed bump is his finding that ethanol is not carbon neutral, as claimed by its proponents.

DeCicco’s findings are based on the scientific methods used to determine CO2 emissions from various types of fuels. In computing the CO2 emissions of petroleum-based fuels, researchers typically use life-cycle analyses, which take into account not only the impact of diesel- and gasoline-based CO2 tailpipe emissions, but also the emissions resulting from drilling, refining and transportation.

By comparison, the life-cycle analysis of ethanol includes the CO2 generated through refining, farming and use of fertilizer, but according to DeCicco, tailpipe emissions are not included because they are deemed to be offset by the CO2 absorbed by corn during the growing cycle.

According to Professor DeCicco,

“However, this analysis found that the gains in CO2 uptake by feedstock were enough to offset biofuel-related biogenic CO22 emissions by only 37 % over 2005–2013, showing that biofuel use fell well short of being carbon neutral even before considering process emissions.”

In essence, DeCicco is saying that comparison of CO2 emissions from gasoline and ethanol is an “apples and oranges” situation, and when it’s changed to an “apples-to-apples” comparison, ethanol comes up short.

With ethanol being the preferred fuel for the “renewable fuels” bandwagon, Professor DeCicco’s study will continue to be discredited by the ethanol lobby. Yet in spite of charges of petroleum bias, DeCicco’s study appears entirely credible; a truly unbiased study of the facts would be the only means of determining the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the role played by corn-based ethanol in carbon emissions. Such a study is unlikely to be undertaken as it might prove that ethanol isn’t the magic bullet it’s claimed to be.

Another factor that is left unmentioned by ethanol promoters is fuel economy. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline and more of it must be consumed to propel a vehicle down the highway; fuel economy typically drops by a few miles per gallon when switching from gasoline to E85 (motor fuel that contains 85% ethanol). Ethanol’s reduced fuel efficiency must also be figured in when comparing its CO2 emissions levels with those of straight gasoline.

Virtually all pump gas now contains approximately 10% ethanol and while its effect on fuel economy is minor, it still plays a role in CO2 emissions. That role may be significant, considering the amount of gasoline that is consumed on an annual basis.

Before dismissing the foregoing statements as being based on climate change denial, keep in mind that since 1959, world population has increased from 2.9 billion to almost 7 billion.

Yet, nowhere in the climate change discussion is there significant mention of the effect of a more than doubling of world population. If anthropogenic carbon emissions are truly the culprit causing climate change, population growth, however unpopular a subject, must be part of the discussion. It’s certainly part of the equation.

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