Renewable Fuels Association Blasts University of Minnesota Study on Corn Ethanol
Last week, the University of Minnesota published a study that found corn ethanol to be just as bad for the environment as gasoline. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should careen to a stop along the corn ethanol highway and turn completely down the paths of cellulosic ethanol and other forms of alternative fuels, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
RFA, the national trade association for the ethanol industry, published its own analysis of the U of M report, refuting its findings and claiming that it was based on “baseless” assumptions.
The report’s erroneous finding that modern corn ethanol actually increases greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relative to gasoline is completely predicated on the baseless assumption that additional corn demand for increased ethanol production will cause conversion of large amounts of grassland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Thus, like several other highly controversial studies published recently, the conclusion that corn ethanol does not offer climate change benefits relative to gasoline is based almost entirely upon insufficient and extremely uncertain analysis of potential land use changes.
The University of Michigan’s study comes to the conclusion that corn ethanol is worse for the environment than straight gasoline by using the notion that vast swathes of grassland or forest will be converted to farmland to accommodate the growing need for corn. The idea is that changing over the land will release more emissions than its worth. But RFA says that there is no concrete evidence to support that land use will change due to corn ethanol, and that the University of Minnesota’s study contains no supporting data itself on land use change and no mention of any of the benefits of converting an area over to farmland:
The supporting information provided online contains no detail on the baseline used, the amount of land assumed to be converted, the types of CRP grassland converted, and other important factors.
RFA further says in its analysis that if U of M were to take out the land use emissions from its report, it would come to the same conclusions that come from other ethanol life-cycle analyses: that corn ethanol provides a 30 percent decrease in greenhouse gas omissions compared to gasoline.
RFA’s analysis of the U of M study also finds issue in the study’s comparison of ethanol to gasoline, saying that it doesn’t take into account the fact that by using ethanol, the United States will have less cause to turn to more marginal sources of gasoline.
Modern corn ethanol is displacing some of the need for gasoline from marginal sources of oil with high carbon intensity (this will be especially true for future ethanol from all sources). Thus, the climate impacts of modern and future ethanol should be compared to the climate impacts of gasoline refined from today’s marginal sources of oil (such as Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan heavy crude, etc.) as well as future marginal sources.
The list goes one. The U of M study doesn’t make note of the benefits of ethanol in reducing vehicular particulate matter emissions – which has already been noted to be a clear good thing about any type of ethanol, regardless of CO2 emissions. And RFA also points out that the university’s study ignores the reduction of other toxic compounds – like benzene – that come with using ethanol over gasoline.
On the University of Minnesota’s Web site, the university’s study is hailed as the “first comprehensive analysis of the environmental, economic and energetic costs and benefits of ethanol and biodiesel.” So which is it? Comprehensive or inconclusive? Whatever the answer, the situation just adds more fuel to the debate around corn ethanol.
Photo Credit: aero nerd at Flickr under a Creative Commons License