A new study finds that greenhouse gas reductions from the use of biofuels has exceeded what the U.S. EPA has predicted by 37 percent. Recent research conducted by the consulting group Life Cycle Associates, and commissioned by the Renewable Fuels Association, found that since the RFS was expanded in 2007, biofuels use in the United States has avoided 579 million metric tons of additional carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, compared to the EPA’s assumption of 422 million metric tons of CO2. At the same time, the researchers found that oil extraction and refining has gotten dirtier since the RFS was implemented, by 4 percent.
These findings echo what both lifecycle assessment models and actual data from ethanol production point to – that throughout time – the ethanol industry and farmers have made efficiency gains that have increased the output of ethanol facilities and reduced overall inputs to growing corn and soy, the two primary ethanol feedstocks.
While the RFS sets GHG reduction thresholds of 20 percent for corn ethanol, relative to petroleum gasoline, and 50 to 60 percent GHG reductions for advanced and cellulosic fuels, the industry, by and large, is exceeding those targets in each category.
In 2017, USDA examined a decade’s worth of data from the ethanol and farming sectors to compare the energy balance of ethanol and gasoline. They found that corn-based ethanol has, on average, a 43 percent lower GHG footprint than gasoline. The increase in GHG benefits relative to other, earlier studies, was attributed to efficiency improvements in a number of areas, including increase in corn yields, reduced tillage on farms, increased use of cover crops and reduction of nitrogen application.
Additionally, ethanol production has become much more energy efficient, through the use of energy efficient technologies such as combined heat and power as well as increased co-products. The USDA predicted that, given current trends, by 2022 the GHG footprint of traditional ethanol would be 50 percent lower than that of gasoline.
As the 116th Congress begins to discuss a Green New Deal and other climate policies, biofuels should be seen as part of the solution.
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