UM expert: Biofuels may worsen global warming

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Biofuels, long touted as a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels, may do more environmental harm than previously thought and may be worse than gasoline.

A University of Michigan researcher has found the increased use of biofuels led to net increases in carbon dioxide emissions linked with global warming during the past decade. Officials in the renewable fuels industry, however, have cried foul over the funding behind that researcher’s work.

The study was partially paid for by the American Petroleum Institute.

Derived from plants and waste products, products such as ethanol and biodiesel have enjoyed a reputation as more eco-friendly than fossil fuels.

The reputation has been based on the idea that carbon dioxide released by the burning of biofuels will offset the carbon dioxide taken in through photosynthesis by crops used to make them.

John DeCicco, a research at the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute, estimates that only 37 percent of the carbon dioxide released from biofuels is accounted for by crop intake.

“This is the first study to carefully examine the carbon on farmland when biofuels are grown, instead of just making assumptions about it,” DeCicco said in a press release this week. “When you look at what’s actually happening on the land, you find that not enough carbon is being removed from the atmosphere to balance what’s coming out of the tailpipe.”

Biofuel use has been on the rise during the past decade in response to federal renewable fuels standards aimed at cutting greenhouse gases and reining in U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Use of biofuels has risen from 4.2 billion gallons in 2005, to 14.6 billion gallons in 2013.

The issue of foreign dependence has waned with the dip in the price of oil and the explosion of U.S. supplies through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” and other drilling innovations.

“When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline,” DeCicco stated in the release. “So the underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have not been proven to be scientifically incorrect.”

Kaleb Little, senior communications manager of the National Biodiesel Board, said his organization repudiates DeCicco’s findings, but is not surprised by them. Biofuels have been shown to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 50 percent to 90 percent compared with petroleum, Little said.

“The science from every other major scientific institution that has quantified biofuels’ impact says something different (than DeCicco),” he said. “I think people can draw their own conclusions from that and from where his funding is coming from.”

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