smog

Death Toll from Biofuels

It was just a short, filler article buried on page 13 of the Arizona Daily Star: “Rising demand for corn from ethanol producers is pushing U.S. reserves to the lowest point in 15 years, a trend that could lead to higher grain and food prices.”

In contrast, the media have been falling all over themselves speculating on the dangers of radiation from the leaking reactor at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility. Although the earthquake and tsunami there have been responsible for about 18,000 deaths, none, so far, have been attributed to radiation.

The consequences from our increasing use of ethanol have not received much press.   A report by Dr. Indur Goklany, writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (Volume 16 Number 1, Spring 2011), estimates that at least 192,000 excess deaths and 6.7 million additional Disability-Adjusted Life Years lost to disease have been caused by using food crops to make ethanol for fuel. These deaths have been mainly in third world countries where the rise in price of food staples or the loss of availability of food puts people over the edge. In these cases, being green is fatal.

Goklany’s report cited two studies using World Bank and World Health Organization data. Both studies covered 90% of the developing world’s population and “both indicate that higher biofuel production increases global poverty, even in the longer term.” See the full study here: http://www.jpands.org/vol16no1/goklany.pdf .

A rationale for using ethanol is to cut our dependence of foreign oil. But, so far, our increasing use of ethanol has not cut this dependence.

According to a report from the Manhattan Institute,

Between 1999 and 2009, U.S. ethanol production increased seven-fold, to more than 700,000 barrels per day (bbl/d). During that period, however, oil imports increased by more than 800,000 bbl/d. (In addition, U.S. oil exports—yes, exports—more than doubled, to about 2 million bbl/d.) Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that oil imports closely track domestic oil consumption. Over the past decade, as oil demand grew, so did imports. When consumption fell, imports did as well. Ethanol production levels had no apparent effect on the volume of oil imports or on consumption.

Why didn’t increasing use of ethanol affect oil imports? According to the Manhattan Institute:

The answer to that question requires an understanding of the refining process. When sent through a refinery, a barrel of crude yields different “cuts,” which range from light products such as propane and butane to heavy products such as asphalt. Even the best-quality barrel of crude (42 gallons) yields only about 20 gallons of gasoline. Furthermore, certain types of crude oil, such as light sweet, a high-quality, low-sulfur grade, are better suited than others to gasoline or diesel production. Even the most technologically advanced oil refineries cannot produce just one product from a barrel of crude; they must produce several, and the market value of those various cuts is constantly fluctuating.

The implication is obvious: Corn ethanol has not reduced the volume of oil imports, or overall oil use, and likely never will, because it can replace only one segment of the crude-oil barrel. Unless or until inventors come up with a substance (or substances) that can replace all of the products refined from a barrel of crude oil—from gasoline to naphtha and diesel to asphalt—this country, along with every other one, will have to continue to rely on the global oil market—the biggest, most global, most transparent, most liquid market in human history.

That brings us to some ethical questions. Should we use food crops to make fuel? One entity addressing those questions is the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. (See report)

First they note:

Recent research suggests that assumed GHG benefits from increased use of corn-based ethanol may have been overstated. Emissions from indirect land use change occur when biofuels production displaces agricultural production, leading to additional land use change elsewhere. Some studies suggest this land use change ultimately causes an increase in net greenhouse gas emissions. When such market-driven effects are included, the lifecycle GHG emissions for U.S. corn-ethanol may increase from 135 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule to 177 g CO2e/MJ, which is nearly double that of gasoline at 92 g CO2e/MJ.

The Calgary paper then asks and discusses four questions:

1. Should biofuel production be managed with regard to effects on food and agriculture critical to poor populations?

2. Biomass typically produces less energy per unit of land over short time scales when compared with other sources of energy. Should we be developing low intensity energy if it results in the destruction of more land and natural areas than high intensity energy?

3. Land use impacts of large scale biofuel production may be significant and are likely to be persistent. Should we only be focusing on the ecological after-effects of climate change rather than the land impacts created by potential changes in energy systems?

4. Should we consider potential effects on rural and urban economies?

The report concludes in part:

There is a missing link today between methods of energy policy development and ethical considerations associated with broader social decision- making. Because the ethical implications of the transitions to new energy systems are seldom considered, the choices we make may have negative moral consequences and corresponding social costs.

In a previous post, I noted that increased use of ethanol fuel, especially E85, significantly increases ozone, a prime ingredient of smog, which even at low levels can decrease lung capacity, inflame lung tissue, worsen asthma and impair the body’s immune system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die each year from ozone and other chemicals in smog.

Ethanol may be the darling of the politically correct, but it is not the darling of the environment.

Ethanol fuel, not as green as you may think

Recently I’ve been seeing television ads promoting use of ethanol. The ethanol industry is founded solely on the myth that we must reduce our use of fossil fuels, even though the U.S. has abundant supplies. The feds have bought into that myth and have rewarded the ethanol industry with more than $25 billion in federal handouts. Big agribusiness, such as Archer Daniels Midland have been promoting ethanol use. But ethanol is not as green as alleged.

Energy Efficiency

Currently, seasonal gasoline is 10% ethanol, but E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) is being touted as a solution to our dependence on foreign petroleum sources. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline. Consumer Reports (Oct., 2006) tested E85 in a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe FFV (flexible fuel vehicle). CR found that E85 delivered 27% lower mileage compared to gasoline in the same vehicle. The Tahoe traveled 300 miles on a tank of E85 compared with 440 miles on gasoline, so you will have to fill the tank more often with E85. Use of the E85 fuel will cost more than gasoline to get the same energy output (depending on relative price). Because of the way Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards are structured, more large, gas-guzzling vehicles are being built as FFVs. The result is that use of E85 has actually increased national gasoline usage by about 1%.   The energy budget of ethanol is under debate. Some studies show that ethanol takes 30% more energy to produce than the ethanol contains. For instance, a study at Berkeley (Natural Resources Research, Vol. 14:1, 65-76), on the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass, and wood biomass, as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants, concluded that corn ethanol requires 29% more fossil energy than the fuel produced; switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.  

 

Health Implications 

Use of E85 in vehicles poses a significant health risk according to a study from Stanford University. The study found:  
 

 

that E85 vehicles reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, but increase two others-formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. As a result, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be similar to those for gasoline. However, in some parts of the country, E85 significantly increased ozone, a prime ingredient of smog.

Inhaling ozone-even at low levels-can decrease lung capacity, inflame lung tissue, worsen asthma and impair the body’s immune system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die each year from ozone and other chemicals in smog.

E85 increased ozone-related mortalities in the United States by about 200 deaths per year compared to gasoline, with about 120 of those deaths occurring in Los Angeles These mortality rates represent an increase of about 4 percent in the U.S. and 9 percent in Los Angeles above the projected ozone-related death rates for gasoline-fueled vehicles in 2020.

Environmental Concerns 

It takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol according to a Wall Street Journal report of a Cornell study. A study from Virginia Polytechnic Institute found that “the most water-efficient energy sources are natural gas and synthetic fuels produced by coal gasification. The least water-efficient energy sources are fuel ethanol and biodiesel.”  
Corn ethanol, produced in any quantity to make a difference in oil imports, will take massive amounts of land, destroy habitat and forests, and threaten our food supply.  

The Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates that it would take 546 million acres of U.S. farmland to replace all of our current gasoline use with corn ethanol. Currently, the U.S. has 440 million acres under cultivation to produce all our food and fiber. [Source]     

“In 1997, the U.S. GAO found that the ethanol production process produces more nitrous oxide and other powerful greenhouse gases than does gasoline production. A decade later, Colorado scientists Jan Kreider and Peter Curtiss concluded that carbon dioxide emissions in the production cycle are about 50 percent higher for ethanol than for traditional fossil fuels.” [Source, Ethanol: Unintended Consequences]

Ethanol is for drinking, not for burning.