Recent Damning Biofuel Studies

There were a couple of recently-released studies on biofuels that readers have e-mailed to me or commented on. I will highlight them here.

The first involves a study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. One of the authors is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist recognized for his work on atmospheric chemistry. The (UK) Times reports:

Rapeseed biofuel ‘produces more greenhouse gas than oil or petrol’

Measurements of emissions from the burning of biofuels derived from rapeseed and maize have been found to produce more greenhouse gas emissions than they save.

Other biofuels, especially those likely to see greater use over the next decade, performed better than fossil fuels but the study raises serious questions about some of the most commonly produced varieties.

Rapeseed and maize biodiesels were calculated to produce up to 70 per cent and 50 per cent more greenhouse gases respectively than fossil fuels. The concerns were raised over the levels of emissions of nitrous oxide, which is 296 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Scientists found that the use of biofuels released twice as much as nitrous oxide as previously realised.

I am sure this study will be downplayed by the ethanol lobby, just as the previous Mark Jacobson study was.

“One wants rational decisions rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon because superficially something appears to reduce emissions,” said Keith Smith, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and one of the researchers.

Rational decisions? Wishful thinking. The decisions being made are political, not rational. Those categories don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but in this case they are.

The second study relates to one of my big concerns over corn ethanol production, specifically in dry locations:

Ethanol craze endangers U.S. Plains water

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) – The U.S. craze for ethanol could severely strain an already ailing aquifer in key farm states, increasing demand for scarce water supplies by more than 2 billion gallons a year, according to a report issued Thursday by the nonprofit group Environmental Defense.

The environmental group’s report focused on the Ogallala aquifer, an 800-mile-long underground pool that stretches from Texas to South Dakota. The Ogallala feeds one-fifth of all the irrigated land in the United States, and is critical to farmers growing corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans and other crops.

“The Ogallala Aquifer is a microcosm of the challenges we’ll face in America as we develop renewable fuels,” said Martha Roberts, co-author of the report and a fellow at Environmental Defense. “Nine new ethanol plants are already planned for some of the most water-depleted areas of the Ogallala Aquifer, even though those areas are vulnerable to erosion and the entire region’s water resources are stretched thin.”

How short-sighted we are. We are gambling with the food supply, but our political leaders are too blind to see it. As one reader put it, “Can you say Dust Bowl?”

6 thoughts on “Recent Damning Biofuel Studies”

  1. I’ve been thinking for a while now that we should be building large pumping stations and resevoirs. We could pump the water from rivers to places that need irrigation. This should take less power than pumping it up from a well. We could use the pumps to control river flooding and store the water in resevoirs. Reducing/eliminating floods would save an enormous amount of money that would normally go to flood restoration. This would be a huge undertaking, but we could eliminate water scarcity and flooding problems at the same time. We could also use it for pumped storage that would allow more wind and solar to be incorporated into the grid.

  2. Robert – did you see the news that Motiva is going to double the capacity of its Port Arthur, TX refinery?

    Shell, Saudi commit to massive US Refinery Project

    By coincidence, I was playing in a golf tournament sponsored by our engineering contractor, who is also the lead contractor for the Motiva project. I was paired up with one of the Motiva guys. This is a huge deal. This will make Port Arthur one of the largest refineries in the world at 610,000 barrels per day. At $7 billion that makes the expansion valued at just over $23,000 per barrel/day.

    This project has been in planning for over 3 years. That puts it before the current run up in gasoline prices and before huricanes Katrina/Rita.

    Large capital projects take a long time to plan and execute. I am working on one in the early stages (FEL-1) that won’t come on line until 2014. Port Arthur won’t be the first or last large refinery expansion that gets approved. But it will take some time.

  3. Possible flaws in this study:

    1. Their ag-related N20 contribution is 3-5x higher than the official IPCC rate. Without this much higher rate their conclusions fall apart. Their justification for the higher rate is weak, IMHO.

    2. They have corn using 2.1 lb of nitrogen fertilizer per bushel. Actual application rates are about half that. I didn’t do the math for other crop types.

    3. Except for biofuel N2O they exclude all “upstream” GHGs (e.g. CO2 for ethanol distillation). I suspect this tends to favor ethanol and gasoline at the expense of biodiesel, but it’s really a total mish-mash.

    I think the general conclusion is directionally correct, but the study itself is something of a disaster. The ethanuts shouldn’t have any trouble shooting it down. IMHO you should show much more skepticism of such studies — parroting them without question only undermines your own credibility.

  4. The constraints against ethanol keep stacking up — land, water, energy requirements, food prices, infrastructure — but the mainstream environmental lobby & the farm lobby continue to avoid facing them.

    Ironically, the far “left” of the green movement is already strongly anti-biofuel. There are discussions now in the EU to mandate that biofuels used to meet its renewable goals be “sustainable” — and may even require them to come from within the EU.

    If we think water availability is an issue in the United States, how do you think China and Japan are ever going to convert over to biofuels? Globally, we are running out of water without diverting it to ethanol production.

    China and Australia will be using nuclear desalinization within 10-20 years just to provide water to their people, farmers and industry.

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