Ethanol’s role in the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions was underscored this week in a forum of biofuel value chain partners, conservation and greenhouse gas experts organized by the 25x’25 Alliance at the request of the Energy Future Coalition.
Critical points made during the forum on the current state of biofuels came from Steffen Mueller, a researcher with the University of Illinois at Chicago and principal economist with the university’s Energy Resources Center, who underscored the opposite directions being taken by the rising carbon intensity of the nation’s petroleum mix and the falling carbon intensity of corn ethanol and other biofuels. He also shared the center’s concerns with EPA’s analysis of ethanol’s GHG emissions in formulating a proposal to reduce biofuel blending requirements this year under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).
Mueller and his collaborating research partners acknowledge that in response to rising demand, there has been a fundamental shift in U.S. oil production towards unconventional and marginal resources, otherwise known as “tight oil.” This is liquid oil stored in micropores of shale formations, where technological advances, including “fracking,” is used to break up the oil laden microporous rock by injecting high pressure liquid and chemicals into the rock bed.
By making the unconventional oil technologically possible and economically viable at current oil prices, the amount that is recoverable from one of the largest U.S. reserves, the Bakken Reserve in North Dakota and Montana, has increased 25 fold, making it the largest oil accumulation in the lower 48 states and accounting for 7 percent of the total U.S. onshore oil production.
But that upsurge in “tight oil” extraction brings with it a spike in the carbon intensity generated in large part by the process of getting it out of the ground. “Well-to-wheels” GHG emissions for shale oil runs about 70 percent higher than the petroleum baseline established by EPA (by comparison, a majority of the oil produced in the Middle East, Alaska and California run under the baseline).
Meanwhile, the latest research modeling, conducted by Mueller and his associates, show GHG emissions from corn-based ethanol has run well below the petroleum baseline, currently running about 30 percent lower. In fact, they say, the actual carbon intensity of corn ethanol was lower in the 2005-2007 era than EPA assumed it would be in 2022.
And that carbon intensity will continue to drop as stover-based cellulosic biofuel production rises, producing only a little more than a third of the baseline GHG emissions attributed to petroleum fuels by EPA by 2022. They further estimate that the use of corn and stover-based biofuels will, in eight years, reduce the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions by some 85 million metric tons annually.
Mueller also pointed out that reduction in carbon intensity even includes any presumed impact of indirect land use change (ILUC) – the ostensible conversion of land to grow crops to compensate for cropland allegedly lost to biofuel feedstock production. If fact, the researchers show the evolution of scientific models has led to findings that the impact of ILUC is 90 percent less than when the concept was original proposed six years ago.
Mueller underscored their assertion that the RFS is a principal driver of the reduction in emissions that is taking place in the use of biofuels, noting that by 2022, corn ethanol will offer a 60-percent reduction in carbon intensity compared to petroleum-based fuels. That’s a level of emissions low enough to be comparable to what EPA currently deems to be “advanced” biofuels under the RFS.
Despite the huge increases in emission benefits from ethanol demonstrated by the analysis of the latest peer-reviewed data done by Mueller and his research partners, EPA is considering a proposal to severely reduce the biofuel blending requirements that are called for under the RFS in 2014. It’s a proposal that runs counter to the Obama administration’s efforts to cement a legacy of action against climate change and the GHG emissions that contribute to warming temperatures and extreme weather events.
Ethanol’s full contribution to GHG emission reductions must be realized if the administration’s climate change strategy is to be realized. Anything short of recognizing the full benefits offered by ethanol would be nothing less than a discriminatory and punitive action.