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ETHANOL and BIOFUELS

Since the early 2000's, ethanol and other biofuels have been seen as a solution to our dependence on oil. This has proven not simply a misguided course, but brought with it unintended consequences to the world's food supply. It has been a distraction from focusing on clean energy sources as a means of powering our transport needs in the futureWhile corn ethanol was originally believed to be a promising alternative to petroleum, it has been largely discredited on several counts. Now we need to determine if, and which, biofuels could be part of the solution, and to what degree, if any, they would reduce greenhouse gases.

A joint U.S. Department of Energy/U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that 1.3 billion tons of biomass, predominantly cellulosic feedstocks, could be produced for biofuel production in the United States annually with only modest changes in farming practices. This quantity of feedstocks could be used to produce enough biofuel, mostly ethanol, to satisfy about one third of current U.S. petroleum demand. The potential could be even larger if technology is developed to take advantage of additional forms of biomass such as algae. link (The U.S. became the world's largest producer of ethanol fuels in 2005. By 2010 the U.S. produced 13.2 billion gallons of fuel, and including Brazil accounted for 88% of world production that year. Most is produced using corn as feedstock.)  (January 2013) The world has experienced a major growth in biofuel production, in part due to higher fuel prices, particularly in the United States. However, some argue that biofuels compete with food production and negatively impact prices. U.S. increases in corn production have largely gone to ethanol rather than to human consumption or animal feed. Corn-based ethanol rose from 15% of total U.S. corn production in 2006 to an estimated 40% in 2012. The 2011 NGO report recommends G20 countries end mandates and subsidies on biofuels and open "international markets so that renewable fuels and feed stocks can be produced where it is economically, environmentally, and socially feasible to do so."  link

Latest news:

Nov. 13 2013: Ethanol strategy worsens global warming. Scientists warned that America's corn-for-ethanol policy would fail as an anti-global warming strategy if too many farmers plowed over virgin land. The Obama administration argued that would not happen. But the administration didn't set up a way to monitor whether it actually happened. It did. More than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost since the federal government required that gasoline be blended with increasing amounts of ethanol. Plots that were wild grass or pastureland seven years ago are now corn and soybean fields. A policy intended to reduce global warming is encouraging a farming practice that actually could worsen it because plowing into untouched grassland releases carbon dioxide that has been naturally locked in the soil. It also increases erosion and requires farmers to use fertilizers and other industrial chemicals. In turn, that destroys native plants and wipes out wildlife habitats.  link

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               Below:  

  •      Issues of climate damage, cost and food supply
  •      Technical problems with ethanol as a fuel
  •      Political factors and subsidies
  •      Global ethanol production
  •       . . . "if you have to buy gas!"

Issues of climate  damage, cost and food supply

August 2011: How Europe's biofuels policy threatens the climate.  A report for the European Parliament, which reviewed scientific research in biofuels, including studies undertaken for the European Commission, stated:  “All model exercises show that greenhouse gas emissions  from ILUC (Indirect Land Use Change) caused by increased biofuel demands are significant, and the range of respective results on greenhouse gas emissions  from ILUC is comparatively small.” What has become clear is that when greenhouse gas emissions caused by ILUC are included in the carbon footprint calculation of biofuels, the climate benefits of these fuels compared to conventional fossil fuels can be negligible or even negated. If the ILUC is taken into account, the greenhouse gas emissions from some biodiesels are not lower than the ones from fossil fuels, but higher link     Greenpeace conducted a study between May and June 2011.(Greenpeace study)  

February 2008: Biofuels deemed a greenhouse threat. Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are taken into account, according to two studies being published. The benefits of biofuels have come under increasing attack in recent months, as scientists took a closer look at the global environmental cost of their production. These latest studies, published in the prestigious journal Science, are likely to add to the controversy. link

A recent  recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that biofuels "offer a cure [for oil dependence] that is worse than the disease."   A National Academy of Sciences study said corn-based ethanol could strain water supplies. The American Lung Association expressed concern about a form of air pollution from burning ethanol in gasoline.   WallStreetJournal

April 2010: Corn ethanol mandates based on shaky assumptions. Federal renewable fuel mandates have created an industry around corn ethanol that now consumes nearly a third of the U.S. corn crop. But what is the rationale behind those mandates in the first place? Several scientists have asked and found the answers to be unsound. The EPA's own analysis shows that, in the near term, natural-gas-powered, dry-milled corn ethanol production results in an increase of greenhouse gas emissions of 12 to 33% compared to gasoline. link  

February 2008: Biofuels cause global warming.  Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are taken into account, two studies being published in the journal "Science" have concluded. While ethanol and other biofuels have long been touted as a means of reducing greenhouse gas levels, it turns out that they have precisely the opposite effect because of some unintended consequences. link

April 2010: EU says biofuels can cause four times more carbon emissions. 
The European Union, including the UK, has set a goal of obtaining 10% of its road fuels from renewable sources by 2020. But a new report commissioned in Brussels found some biofuels can lead to four times more carbon dioxide polluting the atmosphere than equivalent fossil fuels. Biofuels have already been criticised for causing food shortages in countries where land for rice or wheat has been displaced by fields of soy beans or sugarcane for fuel. Environmental campaigners say the latest report proves the renewable energy source is also bad for climate change. link

April 2011: Biofuels could kill 192,000+ per year in developing countries. World Bank research indicates that the increase in biofuel production over 2004 levels would push more than 35 million additional people into absolute poverty in 2010 in developing countries. Using statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), estimates indicate that this would lead to at least 192,000 excess deaths per year, plus disease resulting in the loss of 6.7 million disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) per year. These exceed the estimated annual toll of 141,000 deaths and 5.4 million lost DALYs that the World Health Organization attributes to global warming. Thus, developed world policies intended to mitigate global warming probably have increased death and disease in developing countries rather than reducing them. link  

Why cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels are not sustainable.  Erosion is happening ten to twenty times faster than the rate topsoil can be formed by natural processes and in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends. Fuels from biomass are not sustainable, are ecologically destructive, have a net energy loss, and there isn’t enough biomass in America to make significant amounts of energy because essential inputs like water, land, fossil fuels, and phosphate ores are limited. Iowa has some of the best topsoil in the world. In the past century, half of it’s been lost, from an average of 18 to 10 inches deep. Productivity drops off sharply when topsoil reaches 6 inches or less, the average crop root zone depth. Loss of topsoil has been a major factor in the fall of civilizations. You end up with a country like Iraq, formerly Mesopotamia, where 75% of the farm land became a salt desert.  link  

July 2011: Switching from corn to grass would raise ethanol output and cur emissions. Growing perennial grasses on the least productive farmland now used for corn ethanol production in the U.S. would result in higher overall corn yields, more ethanol output per acre and better groundwater quality, researchers report in a new study. The switch would also slash emissions of two potent greenhouse gases - Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. link


Technical problems with ethanol as a fuel

Environmental Protection Agency and E15 decision. E10 was granted a waiver under Clean Air Act section 211(f)(4) more than 30 years ago and is now ubiquitous in the marketplace, making up over 90% of the U.S. gasoline market. E15 is a blend of gasoline with up to 15 vol% ethanol. Prior to EPA's October waiver decision, the amount of ethanol in motor vehicle gasoline was limited to 10 vol% (E10).. As of November 7, 2011, E15 is not registered with EPA and is therefore not legal for distribution or sale as a transportation fuel. link

June 2011: EPA approves E15 despite engine risk. The Environmental Protection Agency previously approved E15 -- 85% gasoline and 15% ethanol -- for use in vehicles back to 2001 models. The approved label is part of the EPA's final rule spelling out about how E15 can be sold and what standards it must meet. E15 isn't available yet. EPA says sellers have to first register their blends with the agency to be sure they meet a number of standards. EPA says tests show E15 won't harm 2001 and newer vehicles, which have hoses and gaskets and seals specially designed to resist corrosive ethanol. But using E15 fuel in older vehicles or in power equipment such as mowers, chainsaws and boats, can cause damage and now is literally a federal offense. link

January 2013: Oil industry study finds E15 damages fuel systems. A new study shows fuel containing 15% ethanol could damage a "substantial" number of cars on the road underscoring the need to repeal federal biofuel mandates, according to the oil industry. The study conducted by the Coordinating Research Council , a group created and supported by the oil and auto industries, found gasoline containing 15% ethanol, or E15, could cause critical fuel components in cars to break down.  link

May 2010: Higher-ethanol blend will cause problems in many cars. The EPA is expected to issue a rule in the next few weeks that would permit oil companies to increase the percentage of ethanol in automotive fuel to 15%, up from the current level of 10%, so they can meet EPA quotas for renewable fuels. Automakers have opposed the change since the EPA first signaled it last year. But now the industry says it has conducted tests that confirm the higher-ethanol blend will cause problems in many cars. Half of the engines tested so far have had some problems, said C. Coleman Jones, the biofuel implementation manager at GM, speaking for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. link

Political factors and subsidies

August 2012: Global pressure on US to relax ethanol mandate. As the surge in corn prices revives a fierce food versus fuel debate, Josť Graziano da Silva, the director-general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, wrote in the Financial Times newspaper that competition for a U.S. corn crop that has been decimated by drought was only going to intensify. Much of the reduced crop would be claimed by biofuel production in line with U.S. federal mandates, leaving even less for food and feed markets. De Silva continued, "an immediate, temporary suspension of that mandate would give some respite to the market and allow more of the crop to be channeled towards food and feed uses.” link

June 2011: Senate votes to end ethanol tax breaks. The US Senate voted 73 to 27 to end $6 billion of annual tax subsidies for ethanol producers, signaling a new willingness in Congress to trim the deficit by eliminating some federal tax breaks. link  The subsidy began more than 30 years ago after Jimmy Carter first began subsidising corn ethanol to encourage the development of a homegrown plant-based fuel. The subsidy had been directed to the oil firms which incorporate ethanol into their products. [Iowa, which leads the country in corn production, will use 58% of its crop for ethanol this year.] link

December 2011: Federal government finally kills corn ethanol subsidy. After $45 billion in subsidies since 1980, ethanol subsidies end in U.S. The subsidy cut is accompanied by the end of a tariff on the importation of Brazilian ethanol.  Brazil has an excess of sugarcane ethanol, but the U.S. government had previously penalized this fuel stream as a means of allowing U.S. ethanol producers to escape competing on the free market. link   

February 2010: EPA changes conclusions on ethanol. The EPA issued a new rule requiring U.S. companies to produce at least 13 billion gallons of renewable fuels in 2010, up from about 11.1 billion gallons in 2009,  Thirteen billion gallons is about 9% of overall U.S. fuel consumption. Congress has set a goal of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022. Based on the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act which required renewable fuels’ lifecycle emissions to be at least 20% less than gasoline's it appeared then that corn-based ethanol wouldn’t make the cut. An early EPA review calculated that, with greenhouse gases from indirect land-use changes included, most corn ethanol wasn't much better than regular gas. The EPA has now finalized the renewable fuel standard, with agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announcing that corn ethanol will qualify after all. The percentages are even higher for advanced biofuels, at 50% less, and 60% less for cellulosic biofuels.

The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote (2009) “Despite intense pressure from the corn ethanol industry to exclude emissions from indirect-land-use change, the EPA found that such emissions are a major source of heat-trapping pollution from corn ethanol and other food-based biofuels. This finding affirms the view of more than 175 scientists and economists with relevant expertise, arguing that ‘grappling with the technical uncertainty and developing a regulation based on the best available science is preferable to ignoring a major source of emissions’.”

      
January 2007: President Bush's State of the Union message vowed to increase the supply of alternative fuels by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 with the emphasis on ethanol from corn. Besides evidence of catastrophic consequences to the world's food supplies and prices there is a danger in ethanol use for vehicles. Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University in California, says studies found that using E85 will cause at least as much health damage as gasoline, which already causes about 10,000 premature deaths annually from ozone and particulate matter.  link



Corn prices aren't stable to provide a secure source of alternative fuel. At $5 a bushel it's considered high enough to scare potential builders of ethanol factories. It was under $2 in 2006: in June 2008 Corn prices surged to a record with some contracts briefly topping $8 a bushel for the first time as traders bet that a major swath of this year's corn crop will be lost to Midwest flooding. link  An additional problem is the difficulty of shipping ethanol through traditional pipelines because traces of water and other impurities in pipelines cause separation of ethanol-gasoline blends which can reduce engine performance. link  [As of November 2013 the price is around $4.35 a bushel - rates link.]



Piedmont Biofuels:  For biofuel information in North Carolina - click here.
March 2009 Georgia Power wins approval to switch coal plant to biomass power - Georgia Power Company will convert its Plant Mitchell Unit 3 from a coal-fired power plant to a biomass power plant. The facility will be able to produce 96 megawatts of power once the conversion is completed in June 2012, making it one of the largest biomass power plants in the United States.  link

Global ethanol production

June 2012: Global ethanol production to reach 85.2 billion Litres in 2012. The Global Renewable Fuels Alliance (GRFA) forecasts fuel ethanol production to hit 85.2 billion litres in 2012.  Despite the slowing Chinese economy and negative economic growth in many western countries, the GRFA predicts a 1% growth in ethanol output in 2012, up from the 84.5 billion litres produced in 2011. Global annual production has now surpassed 536 million barrels of ethanol per year according to the GRFA. link

Global ethanol production. In 2005, global ethanol production was 9.66 billion gallons, of which Brazil produced 45.2% (from sugar cane) and the United States 44.5% (from corn). Global production of biodiesel (most of it in Europe), made from oilseeds, was almost one billion gallons. The push for ethanol and other biofuels has spawned an industry that depends on billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, and not only in the United States. Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn -- which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year. Council on foreign relationssl
ethanol producti

July 2010: Biomass gains traction in Africa and Sweden. New studies show that bioenergy can be produced on a significant scale in many parts of Africa without affecting food production or natural habitats. Another study finds that currently Sweden derives 32% of all its power from biomass, and aims for 50% of total energy consumption from renewables by 2020. link    
                                      . . .if you have to buy gas . . .

Socially responsible rankings for gas stations: June 2010 -  BP has been downgraded to a D. As of mid-June 2010 new rankings have been applied where no company qualifies for an A rating.  Check other companies here.   Sunoco is still highest ranked at B+

An up-to-date report from the Sierra Club also ranks Sunoco high and reports on other companies giving BP a "dishonorable mention" based on the Deepwater Horizon leak. Finally you can read "Which is the most ethical oil company?"  here


   

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