Energy, Environment, Issues

Ethanol is the wrong solution


University of Michigan’s Energy Institute research professor John DeCicco, Ph.D., believes that rising carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming and, therefore, humans must find a way to reduce its levels in the atmosphere — but ethanol is the wrong solution. According to his just-released study, political support for biofuels, particularly ethanol, has exacerbated the problem instead of being the cure it was advertised to be.

DeCicco and his co-authors assert: “Contrary to popular belief, the heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas emitted when biofuels are burned is not fully balanced by the CO2 uptake that occurs as the plants grow.” The presumption that biofuels emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases (GHG) than gasoline does is, according to DeCicco: “misguided.”

His research, three years in the making, including extensive peer-review, has upended the conventional wisdom and angered the alternative fuel lobbyists. The headline-grabbing claim is that biofuels are worse for the climate than gasoline.

Past bipartisan support for ethanol was based on two, now false, assumptions.

First, based on fears of waning oil supplies, alternative fuels were promoted to increase energy security. DeCicco points out: “Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has backed programs to develop alternative transportation fuels.” Now, in the midst of a global oil glut, we know that hydraulic fracturing has been the biggest factor in America’s new era of energy abundance — not biofuels. Additionally, ethanol has been championed for its perceived reduction in GHG. Using a new approach, DeCicco and his researchers, conclude: “rising U.S. biofuel use has been associated with a net increase rather than a net decrease in CO2emissions.”

DeCicco has been focused on this topic for nearly a decade. In 2007, when the Energy Independence and Security Act (also known as the expanded ethanol mandate) was in the works, he told me: “I realized that something seemed horribly amiss with a law that established a sweeping mandate which rested on assumptions, not scientific fact, that were unverified and might be quite wrong, even though they were commonly accepted and politically correct (and politically convenient).” Having spent 20 years as a green group scientist, DeCicco has qualified green bona fides. From that perspective he saw that while biofuels sounded good, no one had checked the math.

Previously, based on life cycle analysis (LCA), it has been assumed that crop-based biofuels, were not just carbon neutral, but actually offered modest net GHG reductions. This, DeCicco says, is the “premise of most climate related fuel policies promulgated to date, including measures such as the LCFS [California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard] and RFS [the federal Renewable Fuel Standard passed in 2005 and expanded in 2007].”

The DeCicco study differs from LCA — which assumes that any carbon dioxide released from a vehicle’s tailpipe as a result of burning biofuel is absorbed from the atmosphere by the growing of the crop. In LCA, biofuel use is modeled as a static system, one presumed to be in equilibrium with the atmosphere in terms of its material carbon flow. The Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use study uses Annual Basis Carbon (ABC) accounting — which does not treat biofuels as inherently carbon neutral. Instead, it treats biofuels as “part of a dynamic stock-and-flow system.” Its methodology “tallies CO2emissions based on the chemistry in the specific locations where they occur.” In May, on my radio program, DeCicco explained: “Life Cycle Analysis is wrong because it fails to actually look at what is going on at the farms.”

In short, DeCicco told me: “Biofuels get a credit they didn’t deserve; instead they leave a debit.”

The concept behind DeCicco’s premise is that the idea of ethanol being carbon neutral assumes that the ground where the corn is grown was barren dirt (without any plants removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) before the farmer decided to plant corn for ethanol. If that were the case, then, yes, planting corn on that land, converting that corn to ethanol that is then burned as a vehicle fuel, might come close to being carbon neutral. But the reality is that land already had corn, or some other crop, growing on it — so that land’s use was already absorbing CO2. You can’t count it twice.

DeCicco explains “Growing the corn that becomes ethanol absorbs no more carbon from the air than the corn that goes into cattle feed or corn flakes. Burning the ethanol releases essentially the same amount of CO2 as burning gasoline. No less CO2 went into the air from the tailpipe; no more CO2 was removed from the air at the cornfield. So where’s the climate benefit?”

Much of that farmland was growing corn to feed cattle and chickens — also known as feedstock. The RFS requires an ever-increasing amount of ethanol be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. Since the RFS became law in 2005, the amount of land dedicated to growing corn for ethanol has increased from 12.4 percent of the overall corn crop to 38.6 percent. While the annual supply of corn has increased by 17 percent, the amount going into feedstock has decreased from 57.5 percent to 37.98 percent — as a graphic from theDetroit Free Press illustrates.

The rub comes from the fact that we are not eating less. Globally, more food is required, not less. The livestock still needs to be fed. So while the percentage of corn going into feedstock in the U.S. has decreased because of the RFS, that corn is now grown somewhere else. DeCicco explained: “When you rob Peter to pay Paul, Peter has to get his resource from someplace else.” One such place is Brazil where previous pasture land, because it is already flat, has been converted to growing corps. Ranchers have been pushed out to what was forest and deforestation is taking place.

Adding to the biofuels-are-worse-than-gasoline accounting are the effects from producing ethanol. You have to cook it and ferment it — which requires energy. In the process, CO2bubbles off. By expanding the quantity of corn grown, prairie land is busted up and stored CO2 is released.

DeCicco says: “it is this domino effect that makes ethanol worse.”

How much worse?

The study looks at the period with the highest increase in ethanol production due to the RFS: 2005-2013 (remember, the study took three years). The research provides an overview of eight years of overall climate impacts of America’s multibillion-dollar biofuel industry. It doesn’t address issues such as increased fertilizer use and the subsequent water pollution.

The conclusion is that the increased carbon dioxide uptake by the crops was only enough to offset 37 percent of the CO2 emissions due to biofuel combustion — meaning “rising U.S. biofuel use has been associated with a net increase rather than a net decrease in CO2emissions.”

Instead of a “disco-era ‘anything but oil’ energy policy,” DeCicco’s research finds, that while further work is needed to examine the research and policy implications going forward, “it makes more sense to soak up CO2 through reforestation and redouble efforts to protect forests rather than producing biofuels, which puts carbon rich lands at risk.”

Regardless of differing views on climate change, we can generally agree that more trees are a good thing and that “using government mandates and subsidies to promote politically favored fuels de jour is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

This is a guest post by Marita Noon executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc., and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). She hosts a weekly radio program: America’s Voice for Energy—which expands on the content of her weekly column. Follow her @EnergyRabbit.

    Great piece !
    “You have to cook and ferment Corn to produce Alcohol — which requires energy”. It takes far more energy to provide this heat to distill alcohol from corn than is produced by the ultimate biofuel in Automobiles ! This has been known for some time but you won’t hear anything out of the government or environmental movement or the farmers in Kansas and Nebraska that are making far more money selling their corn crops to Biofuel producers than to food producers ! The fact that entire populations in some areas of the planet are continuously suffering from starvation for lack of any basic food makes this practice an abomination !

    • Sodakbull

      Pretty much every study out there except a couple quacks have shown its is energy positive. The idea that people are starving because of the ethanol industry is totally ridiculous. Global grain stocks and meat production have been increasing for the past 4 years.

    • Fletch

      Did you know it takes a lot of energy to distill oil into gasoline and even more to get it to high octane levels?

      So much so that E0 is >36% more expensive than E85

      Did you know the field corn is cattle feed and that corn ethanol uses the carbohydrates only which cattle can not digest well and waste in manure while leaving the feed (proteins, fats, and minerals) in tact, even enhanced to be healthier and more productive?

      More food not less, with a value added clean and nontoxic octane booster/oxygenate/fuel as a bonus.

  • MarcJ

    In 2011, the United States—the world’s largest food exporter—converted 40% of its corn crop into fuel in order to satisfy the government’s Renewable Fuel Standard. In fact, the total amount of ethanol produced in the United States in 2011 was 13.95 billion gallons, enough to feed 570 million people that year. Production of ethanol subsidized by our federal government also consumes as much or even more conventional energies as the ethanol contains, and decreases the MPG of cars using it. Ethanol production has inflated the cost of food all over the world, thus causing huge and unnecessary death toll among the poor. Our environmentalists with their cult of death are all for it since it will reduce the world population from the present 7.5 billion to a “sustainable” level of only 1.5 billion.

    • Erocker

      I watch those poor children starving and know that the US corn ethanol mandate takes a lot of the blame there.

      • Sodakbull

        Don’t let facts get in the way but why do we have over 2 billion bushels of corn carryout from this year into next???????
        Do you even know what that means?

        • Erocker

          Yes, it has to do with price supports that keep the price high. Instead of selling a product at the market value they hold it back no matter who starves.

          • Sodakbull

            So help me understand. Who is it that is holding this product back at market prices no matter who starves?

          • Erocker

            Stop the stupid act.

          • Sodakbull

            I’m not the one doing the stupid act you are. I’m just asking you to back up your own statements here. You can’t because you know it isn’t true. You continue to repeat your lies about ethanol after repeatedly being presented hard evidence that totally refutes your claims. This deal of food prices rising do to ethanol has been refuted by several government agencies, international agencies, UN groups, university and private researchers. I have shown them to you as have numerous other posters yet you continue on with your lies. It takes a special kind of person to knowingly lie every day. Is the paycheck worth it?

    • Fletch

      The Federal corn ethanol subsidies and import tariffs ended in 2011. No Federal dollars go to corn ethanol producers.

      Here is how the ethanol mandates affected the price of corn:



      2014 WEIGHTED CORN PRICE =$3.70 WITH 14.4B GAL MANDATE (& >$100 oil half the year)


      FYI so far corn in 2016 is tracking cheaper than 2015 at $3.15 with record amounts of ethanol being made right now this very minute!

      Corn ethanol is a value added product of a waste product in feed production. Cattle do not digest carbohydrates well and waste them out their rear ends in the manure. Corn ethanol only uses carbohydrates and leaves the feed(i.e. the proteins, fats, and minerals) in tact, even enhanced to be a healthier, more concentrated, and more productive feed. The cattle are healthier on distillers grain than the straight corn and do not need to be fed antibiotics because removing the carbs keeps bad bacteria from growing just like grass does(because of high pH).

      If we all became vegetarians, there would be no corn ethanol made since feed is its most important reason it is planted and it would not be economical to produce without that factor. Corn ethanol is a value added product of feed. This is how it takes export market share from Brazilian sugar cane.

      David Bloom, author of Alcohol can be a Gas, says we should ferment ALL corn since it would make more meat than anything less

      David Bloom shows that it takes:

      10 lbs of corn to make 1 lb. of meat

      3.33 lbs of distillers grain to make 1.17 lbs. of meat.

      17% MORE meat that is healthier with super nontoxic fuel/octane booster as a bonus. Who can complain or not want this?

      Here is the study he uses:

      The energy that went into the production and delivery of a product is reflected in the cost to purchase it. shows E85 is $1.63/gallon and E0 is >36% more in price. It takes more energy to produce E0 than E85 by far.

  • Erocker

    You Republican Conservative types are running the wrong candidate then, cause Donald Trump want to expand corn ethanol to double what it is now he says.


    Let’s consider for just a moment. The amount of dollars through damage ethanol has caused each and every consumer. Ethanol eats engines and surrounding parts completely up! Ethanol has so far cost me a lawn mower, power washer, generator, boat motor and several small engine products. I do everything possible to stop the damage of ethanol on my engine parts. All for what?

  • Sodakbull

    Before an organization like the conservative republican news chooses to print an article like this, they should check their sources. Marita Noon is an oil industry proponent and the study was paid for by the biggest lobbying organization on the planet, the American Petroleum Institute. In addition, John Deccico has been an ethanol industry hack for over a decade. In fact many other researchers are making the claim that his research only accounts for the amount of carbon in the corn kernel itself and ignores the carbon that is sequestered in the corn plant. Republicans, if you lie like Hillary, you wont have a party left!!!!!!

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