Study: Fuels from corn waste not better than normal gas

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.
AP Wire
Apr 22, 2014

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.

Later this year the company is scheduled to finish a $200 million-plus facility in Nevada, Iowa, that will produce 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol using corn residue from nearby farms. An assessment paid for by DuPont said that the ethanol it will produce there could be more than 100 percent better than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

The research is among the first to attempt to quantify, over 12 Corn Belt states, how much carbon is lost to the atmosphere when the stalks, leaves and cobs that make up residue are removed and used to make biofuel, instead of left to naturally replenish the soil with carbon. The study found that regardless of how much corn residue is taken off the field, the process contributes to global warming.

"I knew this research would be contentious," said Adam Liska, the lead author and an assistant professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "I'm amazed it has not come out more solidly until now."

The Environmental Protection Agency's own analysis, which assumed about half of corn residue would be removed from fields, found that fuel made from corn residue, also known as stover, would meet the standard in the energy law. That standard requires cellulosic biofuels to release 60 percent less carbon pollution than gasoline.

Cellulosic biofuels that don't meet that threshold could be almost impossible to make and sell. Producers wouldn't earn the $1 per gallon subsidy they need to make these expensive fuels and still make a profit. Refiners would shun the fuels because they wouldn't meet their legal obligation to use minimum amounts of next-generation biofuels.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said in a statement that the study "does not provide useful information relevant to the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from corn stover ethanol."

But an AP investigation last year found that the EPA's analysis of corn-based ethanol failed to predict the environmental consequences accurately.

The departments of Agriculture and Energy have initiated programs with farmers to make sure residue is harvested sustainably. For instance, farmers will not receive any federal assistance for conservation programs if too much corn residue is removed.

A peer-reviewed study performed at the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory in 2012 found that biofuels made with corn residue were 95 percent better than gasoline in greenhouse gas emissions. That study assumed some of the residue harvested would replace power produced from coal, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it's unclear whether future biorefineries would do that.

Liska agrees that using some of the residue to make electricity, or planting cover crops, would reduce carbon emissions. But he did not include those in his computer simulation.

Still, corn residue is likely to be a big source early on for cellulosic biofuels, which have struggled to reach commercial scale. Last year, for the fifth time, the EPA proposed reducing the amount required by law. It set a target of 17 million gallons for 2014. The law envisioned 1.75 billion gallons being produced this year.

"The study says it will be very hard to make a biofuel that has a better greenhouse gas impact than gasoline using corn residue," which puts it in the same boat as corn-based ethanol, said David Tilman, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has done research on biofuels' emissions from the farm to the tailpipe.

Tilman said it was the best study on the issue he has seen so far.




Does this mean we may stop burning our food?


I'm thinking my wife will burn my food regardless of the change in fuel; she thinks the smoke detector is the timer. I have tried repeatedly to explain that the food is fully cooked long before that particular device goes off.
I do however agree that it is the height of ignorance to burn food as fuel.


Hey ru long time no all turns to gas anyway! Maybe if we could recycle flatulence everybody would be happy. Sure gives us a different twist to "green house gases" and what to do with them.


Hello Wing, with my wife's cooking it really doesn't matter what color the house is I'm in...

Recycle flatulence; and how are we collecting this? Damn Wing I hope we won't have to walk around with some sort of apparatus to collect this. I think the whole idea smells to high heavens.


Well that depends......hey that's it Depends, there not just for incontinence anymore!!!;-)


rukidding: Who are you kidding? Your wife's cooking starts the smoke alarm?....perhaps a few too many nips on the Glenfiddich, eh wot?

Wing and rukidding: If you two plan to ever gather in the same room, you might want to schedule accordingly:


Oh great...always a stinker in the room, oh hi Lanny;-)


Oh No! Shiny Object Alert!


Damn Lani, let me get my tongue out of my cheek. My wife is actually a great cook, but a guy has to have some fun occasionally.


Smart guy! Balter it back. I note you refrain from refuting the remainder of my comment/link.....;D

Tri-cities realist

Rukidding, thanks for the great laugh, I literally LOL'd


I can't see where this conversation could go anywhere but down from this point, I'm going to have to let this one go. Safe night all!


Right. I'm sure the scientists of this important report on biofuels and the future of energy fuels, climate change, and survival of mankind were not expecting some online yahoos to turn it into a discussion on pyroflatulation. But, hey! - that's just how we roll!


Maybe this report is better, I'm just sure you will agree with the source!


Good article - Thanks for sharing. See my comment below. Ethanol was never as good as an idea as Bush declared it to be. There was a massive push by Big Agribusiness to support ethanol, and despite hundreds of billions in subsidies, research, investment, and manufacturing, the bottom line is it doesn't give much bang for the buck.

Ethanol and biofuels have very promising aspects as energy renewables, but there is no black and white in the energy business. Every source of energy has it's pros and cons, and all sources require continuous research, development, study and assessment to be viable, sustainable long-term solutions. We need them all.

The GOP's incessant Keystone Pipeline Battle Cry is nonsense. The US economic and energy future does not hinge on a Canadian pipeline that runs through the entire width of the US out to the Gulf, where the crude will be shipped out to the rest of the world. It would employ about 30,000 people for a few years, and then move out, leaving about four permanently employed people. That's fine, but it certainly isn't the magic bullet that will save America.

It will, however, provide billions of dollars to the Koch Bros. "The Koch Industries website says it is "among Canada's largest crude oil purchasers, shippers and exporters." Koch Industries also owns Koch Exploration Canada, L.P., an oil sands-focused exploration company also based in Calgary that acquires, develops and trades petroleum properties.

A SolveClimate News analysis, based on publicly available records, shows that Koch Industries is already responsible for close to 25 percent of the oil sands crude that is imported into the United States, and is well-positioned to benefit from increasing Canadian oil imports.

A Koch Industries operation in Calgary, Alberta, called Flint Hills Resources Canada LP, supplies about 250,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day to a heavy oil refinery in Minnesota, also owned by the Koch brothers."

And you thought the Koch Bros were all about "We the People".


So if Booshes idea was "never a good idea" than why this. (pay attention to about the 4th paragraph down)

"Apparently you are being fed lots of 'news' that is simply biased and non-objective"


Try as I might, I am unable to see where I wrote that Obama has dropped biofuel altogether. I said he has a multi-faceted approach, whereby he seeks a more balanced energy renewable/fossil fuel direction.

After years of pouring a ton of money into farmer subsidies to grow lots of corn, a huge amount of money being dedicated to production facilities, R&D, car manufacturers building flex-fuel vehicles, it hardly makes sense to just shut it down; it is the height of stupidity, if not a complete waste of money to not carry forward with the final push for blender pumps.

Blender pumps make a lot of sense in those states that are seeing consumer demand. Let's see how it goes.

Tri-cities realist

So by your last comment, you are supporting corporate welfare (tax breaks) for Big Energy (Ethanol) to purchase blender pumps? Wow, I'm a bit surprised.

Ethanol didn't start or end with Bush. According to your illogic, when Bush supported ethanol as part of a "multi-faceted approach, whereby he seeks a more balanced energy renewable/fossil fuel direction" = BAD. When Obama supports the same thing = GOOD. Yep, no inconsistency there :-S At least your hypocrisy is easy for all to see, I give you credit for that.

And just for the record, I am not a big fan of ethanol, or tax breaks to produce it. It provides less specific energy and causes more damage to engines than gasoline.

retired DOC

Does anyone think that one of the reasons that Obama has been pushing ethanol from corn has anything to do with the fact that IL is the #2 corn producing state in the nation?


Ethanol from corn has been the subject of intense lobbying efforts by the Agriculture Industry since the 1990's, with President Bush being a major driver, along with many congressional Republicans. He made many speeches promoting the ethanol industry throughout his presidency, including his State of the Union addresses. Ethanol production became a huge growth industry under Bush.

"The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provided generous subsidies for ethanol production along with increased mandates for its use to replace the fuel additive MTBE, which has been linked to cancer.

As a result, ethanol production has surged. Over 100 ethanol refineries nationwide now produce now than 5.4 billion gallons a year. The 2005 bill had set targets of 4 billion gallons for 2006 and 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. With dozens of additional ethanol plants coming on line in the nest few years, those targets now look comfortably attainable."

BUT: A few problems arose, and it seems the wild herd of ethanol/agricultural lobbying efforts, government subsidies, and a huge demand for corn that was not sustainable long-term, proved to be expensive, the agricultural production was not the least bit environmentally sound, food prices increased in the US and globally, and things started to slow down.

"The CBO now estimates that farm subsidies will cost $10 billion this year and the annual cost "will range between $8 billion and $10 billion over the next decade." That compares to $18 billion spent on farm subsidies in 2006."

Obama has not "pushed" ethanol, but has a comprehensive, long-term energy plan that is multi-faceted, including biofuels, wind solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, and fossil fuels.

But you are right about the corn producing states. No politician, Republican, Democrat, Independent - none want to say NO to Big Agribusiness, their lobbyists, and their unlimited amounts of political money.


Better read my link above

Tri-cities realist

But wait, I thought Bush-Cheney were big oil guys, why would they have been pushing ethanol? Some vast right wing conspiracy perhaps?

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