Why Some Biofuels Are Worse for the Environment Than Gasoline

How some biofuels are produced raises a lot of environmental questions.
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The biofuels blending mandate set by Renewable Fuel Standard bought into policy by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 will expire this year.  The Environmental Protection Agency now has an opportunity to reform its policies considering any new findings. 

The policy’s main purpose was to decrease carbon emissions from burning fuel for transport. The policy permitted gasoline blending with biofuels, ‘such as those made from corn.’

Corn when used in ethanol emits 20 percent less carbon than gasoline

Biofuels such as corn used in ethanol emits 20 percent less carbon when burnt as fuel compared to gasoline. As a result of the Renewable Fuel Standard for nearly 15 years, ‘pumps in the U.S. have been blending gasoline with ethanol produced from corn.’ This led to a ‘sharp rise in the adoption of corn as a commodity crop.’

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Why Some Biofuels Are Worse for the Environment Than Gasoline 4

A fuel that is better for emissions isn’t necessarily better for the environment

Many people would think that a fuel that creates 20% less carbon emission than gasoline is good.  However, academic researchers Tyler Lark and Professor Holly Gibbs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have published their view on how the increased use of corn in fuel has created more problems for the environment than if the US had just stuck with using pure gasoline.

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Why Some Biofuels Are Worse for the Environment Than Gasoline 5

In a university press release, Lark and Gibbs have listed the detrimental effects on the U.S following the Enactment of the Fuel Standards:

  • Crop prices rose significantly after 2007.
  • Corn prices increased by as much as 30 percent due to biofuels
  • Over 6.9 million acres of land has been bought for more corn cultivation
  • Increased cultivation of these lands has meant increased use of fertilizers on these lands
  • The above has contributed to the degradation of water quality
  • Nitrates from fertilizers end up contaminating the soil and drinking water, forcing municipalities to set up water treatment plants.
  • The emissions attributable to land-use changes to increase corn production could be as high as 24 percent, negating the 20 percent less carbon ethanol biofuels produces compared to gasoline.

The researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Tyler Lark and Professor Holly Gibbs, write, ‘this shift to using corn-ethanol has contributed to an increase in emissions in the U.S. than it would have occurred had only gasoline been used as fuel.’

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These latest findings have not been received well by the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade lobby for the use of ethanol in fuel. The RFA describes the findings as fictional” and “erroneous,” accusing the researchers of cherry-picking data. 

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Types and generation of biofuels by Muhammad Rizwan Javed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The researchers’ study was partly funded by the National Wildlife Federation and partly funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Other options for creating environmentally friendly fuel

The researchers are not totally against the blending of fuels; they merely point out the detrimental effects of using corn-based fuels and are keen to suggest blending of gasoline has been helpful so far in integrating renewable fuels into gasoline. ‘.

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Other options for creating advanced biofuels using switchgrass or waste materials as a replacement fuel may be more sustainable and should be focussed on rather than corn.

Feature image credit: ADM corn plant by Ammodramus