So much for corn ethanol making your car a greener vehicle. A new study of biofuels by University of Michigan Energy Institute (UMEI) scientists find that it’s actually more damaging to the climate than gasoline. Their paper published in the journal, Climactic Change this week adds fresh fuel to the continuing argument over it’s benefits.

The loudest voice in the controversy is coming from the biofuels industry itself. Naturally. How dare anyone rain on their parade? Yet, someone needs to, because energy crops are creating increased strain on bees and the environment. Cropland withdrawn from production due to its excessive erosion is back to work growing corn and soybeans for biofuels. And you know what that means? A marked increased in the amount of fertilizers and pesticides entering waterways.

They complain that the petroleum industry paid for this new study. Oh my, and who did they pay for their study? That’s the problem with many of these studies – they’re based on what the people with the funds wants to find. So, why would a study paid for by the biofuels industry find anything wrong with what they want to do?

This new release, that is funded by the petroleum industry, is designed to cause confusion and give the impression that the science is unsettled, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.” — Don Scott, National Biodiesel Board(1)

Toward the end of his Letter to the Editor he says carbon pulled out of the ground, and released back into the air is reduced. Well, yes, less carbon pulled out of the ground gets used for diesel and gasoline. But that doesn’t mean the oil industry has slowed down at extraction. Petroleum makes a lot more things than vehicle fuel. And as far as less carbon released to the air? Maybe not from street traffic, but…

Biofuels increase the creation of cropland, which increases the amount of carbon release by tilling more acreage. Furthermore, it reduces the amount of plants that were previously gobbling up carbon. Does land clearing and planting prep happen with the wave of a wand? It’s more hours of machines burning fuel in the fields, and every gallon of biofuel manufactured is possible only by burning petroleum. And it reduces the amount of mileage you get per gallon; by 3-4% with 10% ethanol, and 4-5% if they increase it to 30%. Great for the biofuels industry, and the petroleum industry won’t complain about people buying more at the pump.

The study causing this week’s controversy investigates the realities of the carbon offset of energy crops. Offset projections based on computer models called ‘lifetime analysis’ these acres of non-edibles are supposed to remove the carbons from the air that burning them creates. The Energy Institute found they actually removed roughly two-thirds of the total amount added to the atmosphere in the past 8 years. So, even if biofuels have moderately less carbon emissions, they’re not helping the climate or the environment. And how much is all this really worth? It’s removing a mere 6.5% of the emissions from every gallon of vehicle fuel burned, based on 10% Ethanol content.

… the approach developed in Michigan provides an “additional calculation” to help overcome the flawed assumption that climate pollution released when bioenergy burns does not matter… The U.S. is not coming close to offsetting the carbon released by burning biofuels through additional crop growth.” Timothy Searchinger, Princeton Researcher (2)

Lead UMEI researcher John DeCiccio tells Christian Science Monitor that adding more and more ethanol to will only remove increasing amounts of land currently actively removing carbon from the air. Something that will definitely start happening fast if they succeed in getting the amount per gallon of gasoline up to 30%. There is a push for this to take place right now. Not that it will be beneficial to the engine of your vehicle, or other motorized possessions. Making them not just more expensive to keep running, but less dependable, and short lived. And all the extra corn will be sucking up ground water at a more accelerated rate too.  Not to mention adding more glyphosate, more fertilizers, and more pesticides to the air, water, and soil. And it’s not even solving the carbon problem!

“We should not be trying to make biofuels at all, any time soon. It is much better to reforest and restore ecosystems…. Reforestation is a much better way to remove CO2 than anything we can do with biofuels.” — John DeCiccio (3)

Land mass that should be left as grasslands, forests, or used to grow food is being overtaken for the benefit of a) the biofuels industry, b) agrochemical and seed giants, c) politicians, and d) increasing grain prices. The last one does benefit farmers, but are they the same set that feeds the world? You calculate the answer from this data:

Only 3 percent of U.S. farmland is used to grow fruits and vegetables, while 40% of it is used for biofuel crops.

Upping ethanol content per gallon of gas to 30% will triple the amount of acreage needed to produce biofuel crops. Not much green in that. It’s also just as damaging to people’s health as plain gasoline, not to mention endangering the bees.

A key argument of E30 proponents is that higher-ethanol blends would reduce the need for alternative fuel additives that may have negative health effects. In support, they cite studies related to the impacts of aromatic hydrocarbons from gasoline additives used to boost octane, which lead in turn to secondary particulates with impacts on human health. Without question, hydrocarbon fuels have negative health impacts. But ethanol is no exception. Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson estimates that E85 fuel in “flex-fuel” vehicles may increase ozone-related mortality, asthma, and hospitalizations by 4 percent compared to gasoline by 2020 for the U.S. as a whole and 9 percent in Los Angeles alone.

Apart from the scientific evidence that ethanol-based particles in air can kill people and make them sick, more recent scientific analysis links corn for ethanol to declining bee populations, with potentially catastrophic implications for many other high-value agricultural crops (almonds, apples) that depend on these insects for pollination. A recent study found that declines in bee populations are greatest in areas of intense agriculture in the Midwest corn belt and California’s Central Valley, both of which have few of the flowering species, such as goldenrod, that are so important to bee survival. “These results,” the study noted, “reinforce recent evidence that increased demand for corn in biofuel production has intensified threats to natural habitats in corn-growing regions.” ” — C. Ford Runge, Yale environment 360 (4)

That’s just the tip of the reasons Runge shares on why ethanol is just plain bad.


  1. Letter to the Editor
  2. Climate Central
  3. Christian Science Monitor
  4. Yale environment 360

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Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Only strangers knock on the door at Callie's house. People who know her don't bother if the sun is shining - they know to look in the garden.