STUDY: Corn Biofuels Worse For Environment In Short Term Than Gasoline (UPDATED)

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, reports the Associated Press via WashingtonExaminer.com

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.

While biofuels are better in the long run, the study says they won’t meet a standard set in a 2007 energy law to qualify as renewable fuel.

The conclusions deal a blow to what are known as cellulosic biofuels, which have received more than a billion dollars in federal support but have struggled to meet volume targets mandated by law. About half of the initial market in cellulosics is expected to be derived from corn residue.

The biofuel industry and administration officials immediately criticized the research as flawed. They said it was too simplistic in its analysis of carbon loss from soil, which can vary over a single field, and vastly overestimated how much residue farmers actually would remove once the market gets underway.

“The core analysis depicts an extreme scenario that no responsible farmer or business would ever employ because it would ruin both the land and the long-term supply of feedstock. It makes no agronomic or business sense,” said Jan Koninckx, global business director for biorefineries at DuPont.

Read the full article on Washington Examiner here.

UPDATE (1:44 pm EST, 4/21/2014): Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) responds:

From RFA press release titled “New Stover Study is Deeply Flawed and Out of Step with Current Science”: A new study published in Nature Climate Change that argues biofuels from corn residue (stover) may be worse for the climate than gasoline is deeply flawed and contradictory to current science. It shows a complete lack of understanding of current farming practices.

Commenting on the study, Bob Dinneen, President and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), said, “The study’s methodology is fundamentally flawed and its conclusions are highly suspect. The results are based on sweeping generalizations, questionable assumptions, and an opaque methodology. The authors offer no robust explanation for why their findings contradict other recent, highly regarded research. Ultimately, this paper should be seen for what it truly is – a modeling exercise of a hypothetical scenario that bears no resemblance to the real world.”

Dinneen goes on to highlight several key areas of contention with the Liska et al study. “Stover removal rates are currently in the 10-25% range, which well documented research demonstrates is sufficient to replenish soil. But this study assumes 60-70% stover removal, a level that nobody believes is sustainable.”

“This study lacks sophistication and contradicts without explanation a larger highly–regarded, credible body of science. Other recent studies have examined the carbon impacts of using corn residue for bioenergy. For instance, an analysis conducted by the University of Illinois and Argonne National Laboratory showed 30% residue removal resulted in no additional direct or indirect carbon emissions. Furthermore, it showed certain levels of corn stover can be removed without decreasing SOC. Initial results from research at South Dakota State University showed that SOC levels remained constant from 2008-2012 in a harvest system with relatively high residue removal rates.”

Dinneen concluded, “Last week there was a study suggesting the carbon impact of fracking may be 1,000 times greater than previously thought. Curiously, that report was largely ignored by the media. Folks need to stop manufacturing scenarios to make biofuels look bad, and begin focusing on the true carbon menace – oil.”

More detailed information on RFA’s points of contention with this study can be found here.

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