And Now, The Biofuel Backlash…

Was it only last year when biofuels held such delirious promise? Ethanol from de-juiced sugarcane offered Brazil the prized goal of energy independence. The U.S. government offered the farming industries billions in subsidies in hopes of achieving the same. Ethanol IPOs like Aventine and Verasun went public amid high expectations. VCs like Vinod Khosla were pounding the table for long-term investments in biofuels.

It all seemed so wonderfully promising. But a year later, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that you might find yourself wondering why anyone was ever excited about ethanol as more than a niche source of fuel in the first place.

These days corn ethanol, the most common type produced in the U.S., is knocked for everything from inefficiency to rising food prices and from polluting air in U.S. cities to denying food to the poor in southern-hemisphere economies like Brazil. Federal subsidies are vilified by fiscal hawks. Aventine and Verasun have lost more than half their value.

But all that bad news only meant that ethanol’s promise was going to take a lot longer than many had hoped. Increasingly, it looks to be getting even worse, according to a research paper published last month but only now gaining attention in the press. The study, available online here, states its case bluntly.

The production of commonly used biofuels, such as biodiesel from rapeseed and bioethanol from corn (maize), can contribute as much or more to global warming by N2O emissions than cooling by fossil fuel savings.”

N2O, or nitrous oxide, is a common agricultural by-product through nitrogen fertilizers. It is also a greenhouse gas that the study says is nearly 300 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. Nitrogen used in creating corn crops for ethanol yields an output of nitrous oxide that is “three to five times larger than is assumed in current life-cycle analysis.”

The lead author is Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Crutzen won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995 for his work on the effect of nitrous oxide on the ozone hole.

The research is under open review, and already some comments are arguing that the paper may have overestimated the impact of emissions from energy crops. Such views are also echoed in comments from other scientist on the news site Chemistry World.

Not mentioned in much of the press coverage on the research is that it distinguishes between some types of crops — notably corn and rapeseed, which is used in making biodiesel — and others such as grasses, which presumably includes the switchgrass favored by biofuel fans like Khosla.

Such fine points are likely to be lost in the broader discussion until the biofuel backlash runs its course. But the bottom line is that Crutzen’s research is much less likely to derail the biofuel industry than to force it to be even more judicious as to where it allocates resources. Those focused on more efficient biofuel crops like switchgrass may actually benefit in the long run.

The feeding trough of federal subsidies is probably going to take years to react. So the corn-ethanol industry is likely to be rewarded for its inefficiency and its production of greenhouse gases. That, in turn, is likely to hurt the image of all biofuels, whether harmful or helpful.


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