(NaturalNews) Corn-derived biofuels release even more greenhouse gases than conventional gasoline, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change on April 20.
The $500,000 study, which was funded by the federal government, is expected to be a setback for the Obama administration's plan to promote such biofuels as a way to meet renewable energy targets set in a 2007 energy law.
The law originally set a target of 1.75 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel production for 2014, and the federal government has doled out more than a billion dollars in subsidies toward this goal. Yet the industry is so far behind that last year, the EPA suggested revising the target downward for the fifth time, this time to 17 million gallons.
The new study may be a further blow to the industry. If cellulosic biofuels - which are mostly derived by collecting and processing the scraps left behind in corn fields after harvest - lose their definition as a cleaner fuel, they will no longer qualify for a $1 per gallon federal production subsidy. The loss of this subsidy might remove the entire profit margin from producing these energy-intensive fuels. Furthermore, refineries seeking to meet their renewable fuels targets under the 2007 law would not want to buy cellulosic biofuels, making them even less profitable.
And while the new study suggested that cellulosic biofuels may be cleaner than gasoline in the long term, these benefits would not appear soon enough to meet the 2014 targets.
Worse than gasoline
The new study is among the first to seek to quantify the greenhouse gas effects of removing the leftovers of corn harvests to turn them into biofuels. Normally, these leftovers would be allowed to decompose in the field, returning their carbon to the soil where it would be locked away. When the leftovers are turned into biofuels and burned, that carbon enters the atmosphere instead.
The study, which was conducted in 12 separate Corn Belt states, found that in the short term, corn-derived cellulosic biofuels release 7 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional gasoline.
The Obama administration and the biofuels industry immediately pushed back at the study, accusing the researchers of overestimating how much residue would actually be collected from corn fields. Yet the study actually did look at differing rates of residue harvest and found that no matter how much residue was left behind in the field, the use of corn-derived cellulosic biofuels still had a negative effect on the climate.
Biofuel supporters use shady data
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), meanwhile, objected that its own analysis had found that corn residue fuels would indeed meet the 2007 energy standards, requiring biofuels to release 60 percent less carbon than gasoline. But an Associated Press investigation has revealed that the EPA's analysis was flawed, and failed to take true environmental consequences into account.
Supporters of corn residue biofuels also pointed to a 2012 study conducted by the Department of Energy, which found that the fuels released 95 percent less carbon than conventional gasoline. Yet that study assumed that much of the benefit would come from the fuels being used to generate electricity as a replacement for coal, a scenario that remains hypothetical.
"I knew this research would be contentious," said lead author Adam Liska of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "I'm amazed it has not come out more solidly until now."
Biofuel emissions researcher, David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the new study, called it the best he has seen so far.
"The study says it will be very hard to make a biofuel that has a better greenhouse gas impact than gasoline using corn residue," he said.