Biofuel benefit challenged

Motor vehicle “biofuels” like ethanol made from corn and soybeans may cause more carbon emissions than gasoline, based on a new study from John DeCicco, a professor and researcher at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, challenging claims by environmentalists that vehicles using biofuels are better for the environment than cars and trucks running on traditional gasoline and diesel fuel made from crude oil.

The research, which measures absorption of carbon dioxide by crops during the farming phase of biofuel production, was published not long after the North Carolina General Assembly gave a green energy tax credit “carve-out” to Biochemtex, a Wilmington-based global technology company. The action exempted Biochemtex from a law that ends the state’s renewable tax credits on Jan. 1, 2017. While the tax credit will expire, Biochemtex will receive an additional $50 million in tax credits for use in a Sampson County biofuel plant building project to be completed by 2020.

DeCicco, who for the past nine years has studied the impacts of biofuels on the environment, said that taxpayer-subsidized “green energy” projects are problematic nationwide.

“Biofuels are very politically popular because of the strength of agricultural lobbies in this country,” DeCicco told Carolina Journal. “Both [Hillary] Clinton and [Donald] Trump, like most politicians before them, kowtow before the ‘corn gods.’ So the money in government coffers to support pro-biofuels research is enormous, and it has been for years.”

But given his findings, DeCicco said he believes that government investment in biofuels and other renewable energy sources mismanages taxpayer dollars.

“The bottom line is that in order for a biofuel to be environmentally beneficial in terms of carbon dioxide because of global warming — which has been a concerning motivation for them — the crop that’s used to create the biofuel has to suck CO2 out of the air more quickly than it was otherwise being pulled out of the air by existing plant growth,” DeCicco said.

Biofuel production often fails to balance the effects of CO2 emissions, since corn or soybean crops that otherwise would be grown for food instead are grown to produce biofuels, including biodiesel fuel, DeCicco said

“Just shifting how you use the crops doesn’t change how quickly the corn fields and soybean fields absorb CO2 from the atmosphere,” he said. “If biofuels have a benefit, it’s not when they’re burned, because everything makes CO2 when you burn it. So the only way to benefit in terms of keeping CO2 out of the [atmosphere] is by pulling more CO2 out of the air when the crops are grown. And that’s what’s not happening with the biofuels we’re producing today.”

Though DeCicco’s research looks specifically at corn and soybean production, rather than experimental crops such as those that Biochemtex is likely to use to produce its biofuels, he said the environmental effects are likely to be the same, since it is probable that the experimental crops will displace food crops.

The study’s conclusion flies in the face of state and federal subsidies that support projects like Biochemtex’s commercial-scale biofuel plant.

The Biochemtex subsidy exemption was passed this June as part of the N.C. Farm Act of 2016, a move that led to some disagreement among state House members.

Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, who supported a full sunset of renewable tax credits, introduced an amendment during the House floor debate that would have denied Biochemtex its exemption from state law. That amendment failed.

“[Biochemtex] advocates had a whole kit and caboodle of why they wanted the extension, why they needed the support, and so on,” Millis told CJ. “From my standpoint, anytime anyone requires the force of government to underwrite, or subsidize, or mandate something upon the taxpayers and the citizens, I’m already a no-go on all that.”

Supporters of the exemption cited job development as a reason to extend Biochemtex’s access to renewable tax credits.

“This is a $200 million investment that they have been working on for years,” Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said during the June House debate. “Their bids have already been extended, and this is jobs … in rural North Carolina, so vote for jobs. Vote for a $200 million investment.”

Millis, who said he supports renewable energy projects that don’t depend on government funding, added he hopes that research such as DeCicco’s will erode support among lawmakers for public subsidies to renewable energy industries.

“Everyone turns a blind eye to anything that appears to be green whether it turns out that it harms the environment or not,” Millis said. “No one is really looking at the harm potential of them, whether it’s solar panels, whether it’s biofuels, whatever it may be.”

Millis said the state law is “riddled with carve outs for the [renewable] industry, above any other type of industry in the state.” All told, he said, “it’s almost immoral what past legislators have done in regards to state law to stack the deck for renewable energy.”

DeCicco’s study has stirred criticism because it was funded by the industry-backed American Petroleum Institute. But the research proposal was written before API agreed to fund the study, and the study itself was open to public scrutiny — and the findings not subjected to any “gag orders” from the institute, DeCicco said.

“Sadly, I wasn’t able to get funding to look at this from people I’ve gotten money from in the past, including environmental funders and public agencies, because they had already essentially decided based on many test studies that biofuels were a good thing and they needed to be pursued,” he said. “They weren’t interested in funding critical work that looked deeper given questions that a lot of people had been raising — including me.”

Biochemtex representatives had not responded to numerous telephone calls and emails requesting comments for this story. Dollar did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Kari Travis is associate editor and social media specialist at Carolina Journal.

Kari Travis is associate editor and social media specialist at Carolina Journal.

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