News Story

MSU Study: Ethanol Use is Good, as Long as the Environment isn’t Considered

Ethanol production is costly to citizens, economy

A new study released from Michigan State University found substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions due to ethanol fuel use in Michigan.

To reach this conclusion, however, the study’s authors simply and admittedly decided not to take into account the number one reason critics of ethanol fuel use argue that it is bad for the environment.

Justification for the study leaving out what may be the most significant negative aspect of ethanol fuel use is partially explained in a statement offered by MSU spokesman Jason Cody.

“The study was not directly about whether ethanol is good for the environment,” Cody said. “The question was whether or not the use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline reduced greenhouse gases relative to gasoline alone. The answer is yes, by about a million tons per year of carbon dioxide emitted in Michigan.”

This apparent disclaimer – “the study was not directly about whether ethanol is good for the environment” – is not found in the study summary; not mentioned in the press release announcing the study; and does not appear to have been mentioned in any news media coverage of the report.

News accounts of the study say only that it claims ethanol use in Michigan is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, Michigan Radio (the state affiliate of NPR) headlines its piece "MSU study credits ethanol with reducing greenhouse gases." Nothing is reported about the fact that the study doesn’t address the issue of whether or not ethanol is good for the environment.

The study, “Greenhouse Gas Reduction in Michigan Due to Ethanol Fuel Use,” was written by Bruce Dale and Segundo Kim, professors in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science. It was released in the midst of an ongoing political battle over whether or not ethanol should be considered an acceptable renewable energy source.

What is also not mentioned in many media accounts is that MSU has a joint project with the University of Wisconsin called the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, created with a $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Many experts argue that substituting ethanol for gasoline is counterproductive from an environmental standpoint. The chief reason for this is indirect land use change (iLUC), which occurs when natural ecosystems are altered or compromised to produce crops that are converted to ethanol. Critics of ethanol fuel use point out research showing that, due to iLUC, the very production of ethanol results in a net increase in greenhouse gases as well as other negative impacts on the environment and the economy.

“It is now clear that the federal corn ethanol mandate has driven up food prices, strained agricultural markets, increased competition for arable land and promoted conversion of uncultivated land to grow crops,” said Emily Cassidy, a research analyst with Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. "In 2012, an Environmental Working Group study found that from 2008 to 2011 – the same period of time in which corn used for ethanol more than doubled – more than eight million acres of grassland and wetlands were converted for corn alone; plowing up these acres of land releases millions of tons of carbon into the air, contributing to our warming planet.

“The paper authored by Seungdo Kim and Bruce Dale conveniently ignores these emissions from land conversion which drastically underestimates corn ethanol’s climate impact,” Cassidy continued. “By ignoring these emissions, the researchers are concealing the true environmental impact of corn ethanol. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency’s own Regulatory Impact Assessment found that the corn ethanol produced today emits 30 percent more carbon than gasoline. The same document found that corn ethanol will be worse for the climate than gasoline until at least 2036.”

Though the study’s summary failed to note that it doesn’t address whether or not ethanol is good for the environment, both the summary and the introduction clearly state how the study addressed the iLUC issue: It addressed it by ignoring it.

Here’s what the authors of the study said in the introduction:

iLUC cannot be measured directly; instead iLUC has been estimated via global agricultural economic models. However, the current methodologies for estimating iLUC are based on a faulty assumption, a fundamental mathematical flaw. As a result of this and other deficiencies (e.g., nonlinear interactions with respect to biofuel volume, lack of data, inconsistent system boundaries between biofuel and petroleum systems, etc.) in estimating iLUC, no scientifically reliable iLUC values are available at this time. Therefore, we do not include iLUC values in our analysis of greenhouse gas emissions.

What this appears to mean is that the study demonstrates that ethanol fuel use in Michigan reduces greenhouse gas emissions as long as the evidence that ethanol fuel use might actually increase greenhouse gas emissions is completely discounted.

Dr. Arvin Mosier, Professor in Global Environmental Change and Food Systems at the University of Florida, has authored several papers on the environmental effects of ethanol production. Besides the iLUC issue, he said he believes the MSU study may overstate the CO2 reduction benefits of corn-based ethanol.

Mosier, said that in several papers, he and his co-authors "concluded that nitrous oxide emissions greatly limit the net decrease in CO2 equivalent emissions from ethanol production. The land use issue does not have to be considered to reach this conclusion."

Dr. Tim Searchinger, a professor at Princeton University, said ignoring iLUC is a "fundamental accounting error."

"[T]he authors make a fundamental error if they do not even estimate iLUC because they assume incorrectly that they can ignore the carbon emissions from the combustion of the ethanol itself," Searchinger said in an email. "That is very real carbon, and there is no justification for ignoring it."

In a 2010 study, he explained the issue: "All potential greenhouse gas reductions from such biofuels, as well as many potential emission increases, result from indirect effects, including reduced crop consumption, price-induced yield gains and land conversion."

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.