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Biofuel bad for the environment?

by Joe Michaels


Posted on February 12, 2008 at 4:08 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:35 PM

Many of us are looking for ways to go green. Maybe you've purchased one of those funny looking compact-fluorescent light bulbs. Maybe you ride MAX here and there. Maybe you bought a hybrid (I'm jealous).

Or, maybe you bought gas recently in northwest Oregon. If you have, then you've actually purchased something called E-10. It's 10% ethanol, and 90% gasoline. And ethanol...and other biofuels...have been considered to be a big part of the push to go green. Biofuels have been thought to emit a lot less carbon dioxide than petroleum fuels...and so would help in the fight against global warming.

But two startling reports were published late last week in the respected journal Science. Those reports were clear and concise. And what they said can not be ignored.

I'm going to break down what those reports said. It's a lot of information to swallow. But if you care about our environment...and addressing climate change and global warming...you want to understand this. Trust me.

Previously, most studies analyzing the life cycle of ethanol have determined that it's a cleaner fuel than gasoline or diesel. Okay, so what's "the life cycle of ethanol?" Essentially, all the steps in the life of ethanol - from growing corn or other feedstocks, to then refining that feedstock, and finally burning the product - ethanol - in your car. But there's one step missing in the life cycle I just mentioned, and that step has been ignored by most analyses - up until now.

The critical step that has been ignored is the land-use changes that have been happening because of ethanol production. For example, some farms in the Midwest that have previously grown soybeans are now growing corn - for ethanol. But people still need soybeans. So those soybeans are being grown elsewhere - in places like Brazil. And in Brazil, they're clearing new land for these soybean crops. Sometimes they clear and burn a chunk of the Amazon, and start growing these soybeans there. Clearing the rainforest is called a land-use change.

That clearing and burning of a chunk of the rainforest has detrimental effects on the environment. Simply burning all that bio-material - trees, brush, grass - releases a tremendous amount of carbon into the air. But that's not all. The rainforests actually act as sponges - sucking carbon dioxide out of the air. If they're gone, they can't do that. So you get hit twice, in a sense.

When you factor land-use changes into the life-cycle of ethanol, suddenly the analysis shows that producing and burning ethanol - it actually ends up putting more carbon dioxide into our air than petroleum fuel sources do. And in some cases, by a very large margin.

This is the synopsis of the two reports that came out late last week. Wow.

I spoke with the state, and it says that the major producer of ethanol here in Oregon is getting most of its feedstock - the thing that's refined into ethanol - from the Midwest. So, chances are, some of our ethanol is indirectly contributing to the problem that these two studies examined.

So, you're asking, some of the ethanol I'm burning in my car right now may be polluting the environment worse than petroleum? Yes.

But, some biofuels are actually still considered to be clean. SeQuential Biofuels makes 95% of its fuel from used cooking oil. So cooking oil - that would otherwise be wasted - is being turned into biofuel. Great! In this case, the life cycle of this biofuel shows less carbon emissions than the life cycle of petroleum fuels. But that's only because used cooking oil is the source. If the source were corn - then there would be more carbon emissions - it would be worse than using 100% gasoline.

Of course, these are just two studies - but they are pretty convincing. I've read them both.

It should be mentioned that, over time, technological improvements may address the problems these studies brought up. But for now, according to these reports, large amounts of ethanol are polluting our planet worse than petroleum fuels.

Feel free to e-mail me any questions you have. I'm more than happy to help.