Congress originally included biofuels mandates in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) to help reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The biofuels industry has long promoted ethanol as a low-emission “future fuel,” but independent scientific research shows that ethanol fails to deliver on the promise of reduced emissions―and can actually harm our environment.
While ethanol supporters tout lower emissions from ethanol-blended gasoline, they fail to account for the high emissions that result from the fuel’s production. In fact, biofuel production can lead to more GHG emissions than conventional gasoline and produce agricultural runoff that contaminates water sources.
According to the National Research Council, use and production of biomass ethanol is projected to result in a higher release of air pollutants, such as ozone and sulfur oxide, than petroleum-based fuels.
Princeton University researchers found that biofuels from switchgrass—if grown on U.S. corn lands—increase GHG emissions by 50 percent. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers found that the loss of trees cleared to make room for new biofuel crops further increases emissions.
Land Use Impacts
Vast forest, woodland, savanna and grassland areas have already been converted for biofuels production―and even more lands will be converted in the future to meet escalating mandates. This land diversion for fuel production will increase commodity prices for consumers and GHG emissions, and force wildlife and fowl habitats away as these marginal lands are developed.
To put this in perspective, producing enough ethanol from switchgrass to displace one million barrels of oil per day would require switchgrass to be planted on 25 million acres of land—an area about the size of Kentucky. Energy expert Robert Rapier explains, “Replacing 50 percent of our current gasoline consumption with cellulosic ethanol would consume 13 percent of the land in the United States—about seven times the land currently used for corn production.”
Water Use Impacts
Water plays a crucial role in all stages of biofuels production, from cultivation of feedstocks through conversion. Published estimates of water use for producing corn-grain ethanol are higher than those for producing petroleum-based fuels. In fact, Colorado scientists estimate that refining a gallon of ethanol-blended gasoline requires between 170 and 220 gallons of water (Table 4), versus five gallons of water to refine conventional gasoline. The same scientists estimate that a gallon of a cellulosic biofuel blend would require between 146 and 149 gallons of water. Frank Rijsberman, director general of the International Water Management Institute, has warned that – if present trends continue – one third of the world’s population will be affected by water scarcity by 2025, meaning that “we could be facing annual losses equivalent to the entire grain crops of India and the United States combined.”
Less Efficient Transportation
Ethanol absorbs water, so it can’t be transported in existing pipelines. Instead, it must be distributed by less efficient systems like truck or rail. According to a Midwest production plant manager, “fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass would require delivering a semi-truckload of the grass every six minutes, 24 hours a day”—only adding to the emissions associated with ethanol development.