It Might be Time to Change Our Thinking About Biofuels

12.12.16 - Ethanol Plant

Using corn or soybeans to create a fuel that can operate our vehicles is better for the environment. Even though the fuel mileage takes a hit when using biofuels a vehicle doesn’t emit any carbon elements at all because these are handled when the plants are grown. This has been the assumption of experts and researchers for many years, but it might be time to change the tone of the discussion and find out exactly how safe these fuels are for the environment. A recent study that was released by the University of Michigan shows this way of thinking is simply an assumption of what these fuels are and how they perform.

To understand why there could need to be a new discussion we have to look at the way the two different types of fuel are studied. With petrol, the lifecycle of the fuel is studied from beginning to end which means factoring in the refining, transportation and of course the emissions from the tailpipe. The difference with biofuels is that the original assumption at the tailpipe was that the emissions number would be zero because the carbon dioxide was offset when the plants were being grown. This study from the University of Michigan shows that this way of thinking could easily be incorrect.

Over the past eleven years the production of corn and soybeans has tripled which should have a significant impact in lowering the carbon put into the atmosphere, but the carbon offset has only been 37 percent. Unfortunately during this time there hasn’t been any analysis of what’s happening on the farms where these fuel plants are being grown because the assumption was nothing needed to be analyzed. Unfortunately, according to this study, the biofuels can be worse than gasoline on the environment when the entire emissions are taken into account, which only leads to worse global warming.

While this study is eye opening we do need to look at the whole picture. It is possible this study is being skewed to some degree because the organization that has backed the research is the American Petroleum Institute. This organization has a direct interest in combating the production of biofuels and could have asked the study be conducted in such a way as to show biofuels being worse for the environment than gasoline. The head of the study state the research has been peer reviewed as it should be and the results are unbiased, but API was the only organization that would fund the study.

Does this mean we need to dig deeper into the effect biofuel have on the environment? It certainly seems that way. In fact, another telling statistic is the fact that mandates for reports to be submitted every three years regarding the minimum amounts of biofuels used in US vehicles has not been adhered to at all. In fact, no report has been submitted since 2011. Even if nothing negative comes of the reports, these reports need to be updated and a way to measure the effects of biofuels on the environment needs to be developed to have a much better handle on this topic.

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