Biofuels may not be as ‘clean’ as the industry is claiming, and in fact may be built on a false assumption, according to a study released by the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute last month.

According to U-M Energy Institute research professor and author of the study, John DeCicco, biofuels a bi-product of crops such as corn or soybeans, cause more emissions of climate change-causing carbon dioxide than gasoline, Detroit Free Press reported.

Biofuels contribute to crop growth

“Since the federal government mandated the use of renewable fuels in the US fuel mix in 2005 and expanded that use in 2007, the share of the annual corn crop devoted to biofuels has more than tripled to 5.225 billion bushels, according to the US Department of Agriculture,” Detroit Free Press reported.

Adding that US-produced soybean oil, required for the production of biodiesel fuel, has doubled in eight years to an estimated 5 billion pounds.

According to the Professor of the study, dubbed ‘Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use‘: “This pulls the rug out from under over a decade’s worth of public policy in this area.”

“Carbon neutrality has really just been an assumption. To verify the extent to which that assumption is true, you really need to analyse what’s going on on the farmland, where the biofuels are being grown. People haven’t done that in the past — they felt like they didn’t need to.

“I swallowed hard when I first, on a mathematical basis, uncovered the problem, which was about four years ago. A lot of interests has kind of congealed around this assumption.”

Crop chemical compounds

DeCicco explained that through the use of US Department of Agriculture cropland production data, determining the chemical composition of crops and accounting for all of the carbon from the plants, he was able to create a ‘harvest carbon’ factor, media reported.

The Professor noted that over the past decade, as the consumption of corn ethanol and biodiesel more than tripled in the US, the increased carbon uptake by the crops only offset 37% of carbon dioxide emissions from biofuel combustion.

He highlighted: “When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline.”

Supporting elements of DeCicco’s research, research analyst Emily Cassidy, from the Environmental Working Group, said: “There is mounting evidence that the Renewable Fuel Standard has been bad for the environment and the climate, and this paper is a new take on that.

“There are some fuels that could be beneficial to the climate, but those fuels would mostly be using crop waste and woody biomass that wouldn’t be used for other things.”

Using Michigan as an example to better manage CO2 and mitigate effects contributing to climate change, DeCicco said: “The name of the game is to speed up how much CO2 you remove from the air.

“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.”