U of M continues record of half-baked science on ethanol and gasoline

Our take:
Read the article below to see the current politically motivated “fact-finding” passing itself off as energy research.

The most important figure in this study is 2005, and it is the key to understanding how off-base this study is in its conclusions. That’s the year that these researchers isolated in order to say, this is the efficiency/energy balance/carbon footprint of ethanol, and this is the efficiency/energy balance/carbon footprint of gasoline. Its seven years ago and it may as well be a thousand years ago, if it purports to reflect current energy realities.

By taking 2005 figures to stand for some eternal measurement of ethanol and gasoline, this study then cannot possibly capture the trend lines —  the inverse lines on the graph–ethanol gains efficiency every year, increases its units of energy offered per units of fossil energy required, and reduces its carbon footprint, while the trend line for gasoline soars in the opposite direction.

We cannot conclude anything but that these researchers began their research with an object in mind and selected facts and figures to suit their theory.

They lay the entire environmental impact of agriculture on the shoulders of biofuels regardless of the fact that these impacts are A) going to be there regardless whether biofuels are generated–world population will demand maximized agricultural production in the US for at least the next forty years. And B) farmers are working with universities and private researchers to arrive at practices that will mitigate these environmental impacts.

In the meantime, nothing of the kind is happening in the oil industry. Brazil is suing BP over an enormous oil spill. (How many times do we have to hear this song before we wise up). Tar sands development–a wholesale rape of the landscape in Alberta, Canada, makes up an increasing portion of the gasoline supply. In the US, all new oil field development involves “hydro-fracking” — using steam generated from groundwater, mixed with sand and carbon dioxide to force oil out of deposits buried deep in the ground–an energy/carbon intense process with a host of potentially negative environmental impacts.

The reason these academics have issued their selective study couldn’t be more political. EPA has proposed changes to the CAFE standards for the upcoming period 2017-2025 to promote both hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles at the expense of FFVs and biofuels. An important foundation for this policy change would be finding that gasoline is environmentally benign compared to ethanol.

Ultimately, the researchers operate from the artificial premise that some energy source exists without environmental implications. When millions of hybrid vehicles reach the end of their useful lives, what will happen to all the heavy metals in their battery packs? Even assuming some kind of recycling program, there will be a huge surge in loss of these materials into ecosystems where they will poison humans and animals. And the ramp up to a million-plus plug electric  in vehicles per year would involve the largest development of electric power generation in decades (if not of all time), and bring with it all the attendant environmental consequences, whether it is the generation of radioactive waste or pollutions from coal-fired generation or the environmental impact of natural gas capture.

A more forthright examination of these “upstream” impacts of favoring electric propulsion would show this bias against biofuels for what it is–a case of political activism trumping common sense.

(excerpt from “Study: E85 Hurts Environment Up To 33 Percent Worse than Gasoline” MARCH 18, 2012, BY HUW EVANS in Hybrid Cars news)

A comprehensive study has revealed that E85 ethanol blended fuel produced from dry mills has a significantly worse environmental impact than does straight petroleum-based gasoline.

Conducted by research teams from the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Minnesota, and the Technical University of Troyes, France, the study covered 19 American corn-belt states, and analyzed the full effect from 12 different environmental factors.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology and reported also by GreenCarCongress.com, factored different environmental impacts aggregated by weights developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It went so far as to include consideration for such aspects as eutrophication and extensive irrigation required for growing corn.

One simple definition for eutrophication is, “an increase in the rate of supply of organic matter in an ecosystem.”

Overall, the study concluded the environmental impact from E85 is 23 percent higher on average than gasoline. If greenhouse gas emissions from indirect land use are also factored into the equation, the impact rises still further, to an average of 33 percent. This latter conclusion was arrived at when the researchers accounted for greenhouse gas emissions resulting from such factors as using fossil-fueled equipment to harvest the corn, convert it into ethanol and then ship the end product to its final destination.

To reach its overall findings, the study also compared a range of environmental impacts from gasoline to ethanol produced in 2005 and considered aspects such as feedstock production, feedstock shipping to the refinery, refining/conversion as well as shipment of the final fuel to the refueling station and use in the vehicle.

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