Ethanol Worse Than Gasoline


By Stephen Leahy
Feb 8 (IPS) – Biofuels are making climate change worse, not better, according to two new studies which found that total greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels are far higher than those from burning gasoline because biofuel production is pushing up food prices and resulting in deforestation and loss of grasslands.

Emissions from ethanol are 93 percent higher than gasoline,” said David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota and co-author of one of the papers published Thursday in the journal Science.

“The bottom line is that using good farmland for biofuels increases greenhouse emissions,” he said.


Corn-based ethanol was supposed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 10 to 20 percent compared to burning gasoline. But previous studies did not account for the real-world fact that when agricultural land is used for fuel there is less land to grow food in a hungry world. That drives up food prices and leads to conversion of forests and native grasslands to grow food.

Converting forests and grasslands is a big climate no-no.

Each converted hectare dumps about 351 tonnes of GHGs on average into the atmosphere. Natural lands have been accumulating carbon for hundreds of years. It would take 167 years of ethanol production on that hectare to balance the equation, even assuming ethanol does reduce emissions 20 percent, reports Timothy Searchinger and colleagues in the other paper.

And Searchinger found this is the case for all biofuels, although the timeframes differ. When a hectare of peatland rainforest in Indonesia or Malaysia is converted to grow oil palm trees for oil palm, it will take 423 years of producing palm biodiesel to work off the carbon debt from conversion of these tropical forests.

Sadly, vast tracts of peatlands have already been cleared.

tropical-hardwood-dave-tilman.jpgLast December, Susan Page, a leading expert on peatlands at the University of Leicester in England, reported that some 3.2 million hectares have been converted already and will put an astonishing 3.22 billion tonnes of GHGs into the atmosphere over 25 years. Every tonne of palm oil produced on this peatland will result in up to 70 tonnes of CO2 over the life cycle of 25 years due to conversion, peat decomposition and emission from fires associated with land clearance, she found.

In 2005, 25 percent of all deforestation in Southeast Asia was on peatlands for palm oil plantations. The remaining forest peatlands are safely storing 50 to 70 billion tonnes of carbon.

“Current land use and land practise developments in Southeast Asia give grave cause for concern,” said Page in a statement.

Surprisingly, these are the first studies to look at the impacts of global biofuel production on land clearing.

For complete article see Biofuels Worse Than Fossil Fuels, Studies Find

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My other articles on ethanol and biofuels :

My other articles on ethanol and biofuels :

Quotes From Six Experts On Ethanol

International Enviro Standards Needed for Biofuels

Greenest Ethanol Still Unproven

Ethanol: The Great Big Green Fraud

Food & Fuel: The New Magic Bullet Biofuel?

Record $Financing For Biofuels, Not Food

Biofuels: Another Good Reason to Hate American Policy

27 thoughts on “Ethanol Worse Than Gasoline

  1. ..the enviro family has always known that to make ethanol you used a lot of energy and that to create it was no panacea,,, but the drive to escape foreign control of our fuel sources outweighed the harm ..the goal is to get control of the fuel market, and then work on making it cleaner….

  2. A University of Illinois researcher, Yuanhui Zhang, is the head of a team of bio-environmental engineers that has found a way to produce 3.6 gallons of light crude oil from 6 gallons of pig excrement. The USA has 100 million pigs, each of which excretes 6 gallons of waste each day. This means that theoretically we could produce 360 million gallons of light crude oil per day or nearly 8.6 million barrels of light crude oil. The USA currently imports 12 million barrels a day from countries that are either politically unstable or hostile to this country. Every time we gas up with fuel from Muslim countries (especially Saudi Arabia) we are financing the jihad against us. It is time that we use pig (and perhaps even cattle and human) waste to gain energy independence. Our national security is of the utmost importance.

    The “global warming science” is suspect. Carbon dioxide is only .038 percent of the entire atmosphere and human produced CO2 is only 3.5 percent of CO2 produced from all sources every year. Over the last 600 million years, the maximum count of CO2 has been 7700 parts per million, over 20 times current levels (380 parts per million). Over this time period, the earth’s global mean temperature has oscillated between 12 and 22 degrees centigrade (the current global mean temperature is 15 degrees centigrade).

    Only four elements constitute 99.85 percent of the earths’ atmosphere: Nitrogen (76.5 percent), Oxygen (20.5 percent), Water Vapor (1.95 percent), and Argon (0.9 percent). According to the book “Uncontrollable Global Warming Every 1500 Years”, Water Vapor accounts for 95 percent of the total “greenhouse forcing factor”, CO2 accounts for 3.6 percent of the total. Since human sources of CO2 account for only 3.5 percent of total CO2 produced every year, the human contribution to “global warming” from CO2 is 0.12 percent.

    Reid Bryson, professor emeritus of Oceanographic and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, has said that in the first 30 feet off the ground when solar heat bounces off the face of the earth, 80 percent of that heat is absorbed by water vapor and only 0.08 percent is absorbed by CO2. He said that “you could spit and have more of an effect on climate that doubling CO2 in the atmosphere.”

    Freeman Dyson, professor of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, said about computer climate models:

    “… I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.”

    I have been reading numerous articles on the web about the quality of temperature data and am troubled by the fact that many of the boxes used to house thermometers in the USA have been painted with high-gloss latex enamel paint which tends to bias upward the measured temperature at those sites. Also, some sites in the USA have their thermometer boxes near air conditioning vents which also can bias upward the temperature measured at these locations. In addition, many of these sites are in urban or suburban zones which can bias upward temperature measurements due to the “urban heat island effect.” I have also read that approximately 2/3rds of the measuring stations worldwide have closed down since the 1970s, including 200 stations that closed in 1991 in the former Soviet Union due to a lack of funds. How can we take seriously comparisons between global mean temperatures measured today from sites that were once rural and are now urban or suburban with temperatures recorded 100 years ago with less precise measuring equipment or with data measured 100 years ago from sites that no longer exist? Is this to some extent like comparing apples and oranges?

  3. Bio-fuels on their own aren’t bad, it’s some of the methods to produce them that are the problem. The only way to a cleaner and greener future is to migrate towards biofuels and other alternative sources of energy.

    To solve the issues of deforestation we need stronger laws that prevent it and prosecute offenders. Plants like Jathropa (which is the biggest source of bio-ethonol in India) easily grow in shrubland and wasteland.

    What is really the problem then is that cultivators are ignorant. Bio fuels is not the cleanest (Solar is), but it certainly is one of the most financially viable options to todays industry and automotives that are fossil fuel powered.

    By insights like these are definitely helpful and hopefully will make a positive impact on the way forward.

    Cheers mate!

  4. sure hope you all didn’t hurt your brain trying to come up with that conclusion.

    dr. ron paul made that startling disclosure at a recent gop debate – but like other realities present and future, voodoo economics is the people’s choice.

  5. It seems like we should be reading into different forms of energy and weighing their costs and benefits against each other. Picking one that is going to have absolutely no negative effect on the world is probably close to impossible.

  6. Mr. Leahy, after reading through other entries in your blog, I think you might be a bit ambivalent about the linking of this blog on so many conservative websites.

  7. Biofuels and other “green” energy sources like solar simply can’t compete with the amount of energy produced from oil and coal. Barring some technological breakthrough, they will never be economically viable and will always depend on subsidies.

    If people insist on “going green” and reducing dependence on foreign oil, there are two routes to doing so: increase use of our own resources while pursuing ways to use oil and coal more efficiently; and switch to nuclear power. Of course either option would foil the Algorites’ schemes to rule the world by keeping energy cheap and Americans free.

  8. Ahh the human race….we all like to complain. Studies this studies that…to me it is all bla bla. We have the technology to use hydrogen (water) but NOOO, we have to put up with gouverments bla bla. I think it is in our nature to bla bla instead of taking action. As for mother earth, she will wake up one morning and ruffle its feathers.

    The guy in Canada


  9. Whoa there liberalcrusher et al..Environuts and enviros of any kind have zero power or influence in America and especially in George W’s White House. The radicals driving the biofuel boom are the big grain corporations like ADM, Cargill and seed companies like Monsanto. Follow the money, right? Who profits most from high corn prices? (ps it’s not the farmers)

    Michael: yes we can make fuel a lot things but usually more expensive or other drawbacks. As for global warming, the evidence is abundantly clear and unfortunately adding a few billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere does make a big difference. Wish it were otherwise.

    Village Idiot: biofuels could be done right, but even growing Jathropa on wastelands could do done wrong as it is in some parts of India where poor farmers of such wastelands are being kicked off (see this posting: Record $Financing For Biofuels, Not Food)

    Gildersleeve: lot of folks don’t seem to realize the biofuel boom is a form of corporate welfare – billions in subsidies for agribusiness – it was never primarily about reducing emissions. The easiest/fastest way to reduce emissions would have been to improve fuel efficiency which has improved little since the 1970s.

  10. How do you explain billions of tons of CO2 in terms of parts per million in the atmosphere?

    How do you explain the fact that most of the warming in the 20th Century occurred before 1940 when far more CO2 was placed into the atmosphere in the last half of that century than in the first half by humans?

    CO2 changes do not account for the highly variable climate we know the earth has had (the Roman Warming, the Dark Ages, the Medieval Warming period, and the Little Ice Age) in the last 2000 years.

    As I understand the situation, additional quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere will have a declining marginal increase in the “Greenhouse Effect.”

    The “Greenhouse Theory” says that CO2 will warm the lower atmosphere first and then the atmospheric heat will radiate to the Earth’s surface. According to the book “Unstoppable Global Warming”, this is not happening. The satellite and weather balloon data shows a warming in the lower atmosphere of only 0.015 C per decade from 1979 to 2004.

    Over the last 240,000 years, CO2 levels have lagged behind temperature increases by 800 years on average (meaning that temperature increases have been the driving force behind CO2 increases historically). I do not wish to have you believe that I am saying that CO2 does not have any impact on the “Greenhouse Forcing Effect” but that it is minor.

    One thing I would like you to comment on is the fact that in the last 100 years man has engaged in irrigation projects world wide that surely has put more water vapor into the atmosphere (I know that water vapor stays in the atmosphere only 4 or 5 days but much of the rainfall that follows evaporates back into the atmosphere).

    I work at the University of Washington Medical Center and so I receive emails from time to time about some of the science news that the UW publicizes. I will have to look for it, but I remember one notice that said that a couple of UW scientists had discovered that Cirris clouds now contain twice as much water vapor as scientists thought was physically possible. They think that it might be because of aerosols attaching themselves to the clouds and the additional water vapor piggybacking on to the aerosols. But this is not due to CO2 from man-made sources, is it?

    As an aside, I have read that at the end of the Roman and Medieval Warming periods, when temperatures began declining in a serious way, that Europe and Asia were hit by famine due to crop failures and as well as bubonic plague. Should we not be concerned about the prospect of global cooling? Russian astrophysicist Habibullah Abdusamatov, head of the Pulkovo Observatory space research laboratory, says that the earth has passed the peak of its warm period and a cold spell will set in as early as 2012 and could last 50-60 years. I notice that there is currently almost no sun-spot activity on the sun and that this may be the cause of our unusually cold winter in much of the world (massive snow in China, 8″ of snow in Jerusalem, snow in Jordan and Syria, snow in Baghdad for the first time in 100 years, snow in Buenos Aires in 70 years, temperatures in the 30s in Cambodia, massive snow in Canada and USA along with subzero temperatures all the way down to Iowa).

    If this Abdusamatov’s belief becomes a reality, is it not insane to trash the energy infrastructure we now have in favor of biofuels, solar, wind power, and nuclear power which will never come close to replacing even coal as an energy source? One of the other arguments made for going to alternative forms of energy is that we are running out of “fossil fuels.” But Thomas Gold, Professor emeritus of Physics at Cornell University, wrote a book in 2001 called “Deep Hot Biosphere” in which he claimed that oil and natural gas are created within the core of the earth and pushed out through fissures in the earth’s mantle and that these fuel sources are not derived from decomposed animal and plant matter, so that we will not run out of these fuel sources. This theory has recently been confirmed by a team of scientists led by UW Oceanography professor Giora Proskurowski which discovered hydrogen-rich fluids venting from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean at a place called The Lost City Hyperthermal Field which were produced by the abiotic synthesis of hydrocarbons in the mantle of the earth. Their study has been published in this months’ Science magazine. This challenges the conventional scientific theory that hydrocarbons are organic in nature, created by the deterioration of biological material deposited millions of years ago in sedimentary rock and converted to hydrocarbons under intense heat and pressure.

  11. Michael, yes 7 to 8 billion tons of CO2 a year. You really need to do some study on basic atmospheric physics, rather than looking for exotic and unlikely explanations. Thousands of scientists have studied climate change for decades and they wish they were wrong. I have interviewed hundreds of them from around the world and they would love someone to prove them wrong.

  12. Yes folks, Stephen is right. You are better off at present buying a very fuel efficient petrol car (and there are plenty of them out there) than relying on ethanol. Second generation biofuels that utilize wastes (including pig shit) are the answer and the engineers are working on them as I type.

  13. “When agricultural land is used for fuel there is less land to grow food in a hungry world.” While the world might be hungry, American farmland is often left to lie idle. The real problem with feeding the world is political (governments using food as a weapon) or philosophical (sacred animals – ie. rats/cows) consuming food that could otherwise be used to feed the hungry world.

  14. Doc some ag lands have been set aside but these benefit other species – birds, etc. I agree hunger is a political problem — the hungry are too poor to buy food both here in North America and elsewhere in the world.

  15. Screw it pave the damn planet so we cant get this whole thing we call existence over with.. humans were never intended to be made.. we have outlived our use

  16. Solar panels and other electronic parts requires the use of toxic chemicals, nuclear has radioactive waste which we have run out of room for storage, what do you do with the materials in batteries after they are spent? Wind power is the only thing left that really doesn’t have any serious side effects. And we sure know there is a bunch of it in D.C. so the supply is theoretically endless.

  17. there are a lot of problems with ethanol. 1. above. 2. it takes more energy to produce than you get from burning it. 3. we’ll run out of food – the earth is already overpopulated anyway. and the list goes on.

  18. Soya production primarily is not being cultivated to provide food for the world’ s hungry population. Most of it is harvested in order to feed cattle in countries such as the United States, Western Europe and in China. The cattle are then processed to become beef that usually do not land on the table of the hungry of poorer nations. False A lot of these videos are full of green goodness but let this criterion guide your voting and rate below. gr, remcowoudstra

  19. Myth #1: It Takes More Energy to ­Produce Ethanol than You Get from It!

    Most ethanol research over the past 25 years has been on the topic of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). Public discussion has been dominated by the American Petroleum Institute’s aggressive distribution of the work of Cornell professor David Pimentel and his numerous, deeply flawed studies. Pimentel stands virtually alone in portraying alcohol as having a negative EROEI—producing less energy than is used in its production.

    In fact, it’s oil that has a negative EROEI. Because oil is both the raw material and the energy source for production of gasoline, it comes out to about 20% negative. That’s just common sense; some of the oil is itself used up in the process of refining and delivering it (from the Persian Gulf, a distance of 11,000 miles in tanker travel).

    The most exhaustive study on ethanol’s EROEI, by Isaias de Carvalho Macedo, shows an alcohol energy return of more than eight units of output for every unit of input—and this study accounts for everything right down to smelting the ore to make the steel for tractors.

    But perhaps more important than EROEI is the energy return on fossil fuel input. Using this criterion, the energy returned from alcohol fuel per fossil energy input is much higher. In a system that supplies almost all of its energy from biomass, the ratio of return could be positive by hundreds to one.
    Myth #2: There Isn’t Enough Land to Grow Crops for Both Food and Fuel!

    According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. has 434,164,946 acres of “cropland”—land that is able to be worked in an industrial fashion (monoculture). This is the prime, level, and generally deep agricultural soil. In addition to cropland, the U.S. has 939,279,056 acres of “farmland.” This land is also good for agriculture, but it’s not as level and the soil not as deep. Additionally, there is a vast amount of acreage—swamps, arid or sloped land, even rivers, oceans, and ponds—that the USDA doesn’t count as cropland or farmland, but which is still suitable for growing specialized energy crops.

    Of its nearly half a billion acres of prime cropland, the U.S. uses only 72.1 million acres for corn in an average year. The land used for corn takes up only 16.6% of our prime cropland, and only 7.45% of our total agricultural land.

    Even if, for alcohol production, we used only what the USDA considers prime flat cropland, we would still have to produce only 368.5 gallons of alcohol per acre to meet 100% of the demand for transportation fuel at today’s levels. Corn could easily produce this level—and a wide variety of standard crops yield up to triple this. Plus, of course, the potential alcohol production from cellulose could dwarf all other crops.
    Myth #3: Ethanol’s an Ecological ­Nightmare!

    You’d be hard-pressed to find another route that so elegantly ties the solutions to the problems as does growing our own energy. Far from destroying the land and ecology, a permaculture ethanol solution will vastly improve soil fertility each year.

    The real ecological nightmare is industrial agriculture. Switching to organic-style crop rotation will cut energy use on farms by a third or more: no more petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. Fertilizer needs can be served either by applying the byproducts left over from the alcohol manufacturing process directly to the soil, or by first running the byproducts through animals as feed.
    Myth #4: It’s Food Versus Fuel—We Should Be Growing Crops for Starving Masses, Not Cars!

    Humankind has barely begun to work on designing farming as a method of harvesting solar energy for multiple uses. Given the massive potential for polyculture yields, monoculture-study dismissals of ethanol production seem silly when viewed from economic, energetic, or ecological perspectives.

    Because the U.S. grows a lot of it, corn has become the primary crop used in making ­ethanol here. This is supposedly ­controversial, since corn is identified as a staple food in poverty-stricken parts of the world. But 87% of the U.S. corn crop is fed to animals. In most years, the U.S. sends close to 20% of its corn to other countries. While it is assumed that these exports could feed most of the hungry in the world, the corn is actually sold to wealthy nations to fatten their livestock. Plus, virtually no impoverished nation will accept our corn, even when it is offered as charity, due to its being genetically modified and therefore unfit for human consumption.

    Also, fermenting the corn to alcohol results in more meat than if you fed the corn directly to the cattle. We can actually increase the meat supply by first processing corn into alcohol, which only takes 28% of the starch, leaving all the protein and fat, creating a higher-quality animal feed than the original corn.
    Myth #5: Big Corporations Get All Those Ethanol Subsidies, and
    Taxpayers Get Nothing in Return!

    Between 1968 and 2000, oil companies received subsidies of $149.6 billion, compared to ethanol’s paltry $116.6 million. The subsidies alcohol did receive have worked extremely well in bringing maturity to the industry. Farmer-owned cooperatives now produce the majority of alcohol fuel in the U.S. Farmer-owners pay themselves premium prices for their corn and then pay themselves a dividend on the alcohol profit.

    The increased economic activity derived from alcohol fuel production has turned out to be crucial to the survival of noncorporate farmers, and the amounts of money they spend in their communities on goods and services and taxes for schools have been much higher in areas with an ethanol plant. Plus, between $3 and $6 in tax receipts are generated for every dollar of ethanol subsidy. The rate of return can be much higher in rural communities, where re-spending within the community produces a multiplier factor of up to 22 times for each
    alcohol fuel subsidy dollar.
    Myth #6: Ethanol Doesn’t ­Improve Global Warming! In Fact, It ­Pollutes the Air!

    Alcohol fuel has been added to gasoline to reduce virtually every class of air pollution. Adding as little as 5–10% alcohol can reduce carbon monoxide from gasoline exhaust dramatically. When using pure alcohol, the reductions in all three of the major pollutants—carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and ­hydrocarbons—are so great that, in many cases, the remaining emissions are unmeasurably small. Reductions of more than 90% over gasoline emissions in all categories have been routinely documented for straight alcohol fuel.

    It is true that when certain chemicals are included in gasoline, addition of alcohol at 2–20% of the blend can cause a reaction that makes these chemicals more volatile and evaporative. But it’s not the ethanol that’s the problem; it’s the gasoline.

    Alcohol carries none of the heavy metals and sulfuric acid that gasoline and diesel exhausts do. And straight ethanol’s evaporative emissions are dramatically lower than gasoline’s, no more toxic than what you’d find in the air of your local bar.

    As for global warming, the production and use of alcohol neither reduces nor increases the atmosphere’s CO2. In a properly designed system, the amount of CO2 and water emitted during fermentation and from exhaust is precisely the amount of both chemicals that the next year’s crop of fuel plants needs to make the same amount of fuel once again.

    Alcohol fuel production actually lets us reduce carbon dioxide emissions, since the growing of plants ties up many times more carbon dioxide than is created in the production and use of the alcohol. Converting from a hydrocarbon to a ­carbohydrate economy could quickly reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.

  20. Mitchell – you sure sound like someone who works for the ethanol industry…

    And your sources of info seem to reflect that. Your EROEI examples are based on sugar cane.

    Let’s face the plain fact that plants aren’t a very good source of energy except when they been compressed and compacted under enormous pressures for millions of years — and that’s called oil.

    [Update] Plenty of newer US studies (May 2009) that show the same thing:

    • Mr Hagen you make valid points although fail to mention that the George W Bush administration launched the current wave of enormous ethanol subsidies in the first place. Obama has merely failed to cut those subsidies.

      My other articles on this:

      Ethanol Worse Than Gasoline

      Only Green Part of Most Biofuels is the Wealth (Subsidies) They Generate

      Ethanol: The Great Big Green Fraud

      International Enviro Standards Needed for Biofuels

      Six Experts On Why Ethanol is a Dumb Idea

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