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Issues of the Environment: U-M Researcher Calls For End To Current Biofuel Policy In The U.S.

Feb 1, 2017

Ethanol Pump
Credit Drew from Zhrodague / flickr.com

In August of 2016,  University of Michigan Energy Institute scientists, led by John DeCicco, released an 8-year study.  It estimated powering an American vehicle with ethanol made from corn increased carbon pollution more than using gasoline.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment,” David Fair talks with Professor DeCicco about the findings and what it means to future policy.


Overview

   *   This research has huge policy implications for the biofuels industry. The U-M findings reject years of work by other scientists who have relied on a more traditional approach to judging climate impacts from bioenergy — an approach called life-cycle analysis.  “DeCicco's research challenges a premise at the foundation of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard: an assumption that biofuels are inherently carbon-neutral; that is, that the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere when biofuel is burned and an engine releases its exhaust is offset by the amount of carbon the corn or soybeans removed from the atmosphere during its growth cycle,” reports the Detroit Free Press.

   *   According to the USDA, federal public policy mandating the use of renewable fuels has more than tripled the share of the annual corn crop devoted to biofuels.  In January of 2017, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reaffirmed their commitment to the “life-cycle analysis” approach, and they claim that “the GHG profile of corn ethanol will be 50 percent lower than gasoline in 2022 if current trends in corn yields, process fuel switching, and improvements in trucking fuel efficiency continue,” 76% if the USDA adds conservation strategies.

   *   John DeCicco, Research Professor, University of Michigan Energy Institute, says that an approach that accounts for net ecosystem production means that even “sustainable” biomass production is not a sufficient condition for removing enough CO2 to increase the net rate of removal.  He says,"the name of the game is to speed up how much CO2 you remove from the air," he said.  "The best way to begin removing more CO2 from the air is to grow more trees and leave them.  Prior to settlement, Michigan was heavily forested.  A state like Michigan could do much more to balance out the tailpipe emissions of CO2 by reforesting than by repurposing the corn and soybeans grown in the state into biofuels.  That is just a kind of shell game that's not working."

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu