Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term, a new study said.
"The study says it will be very hard to make a biofuel that has a better greenhouse gas impact than gasoline using corn residue," which puts it in the same boat as corn-based ethanol, said David Tilman, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has done research on biofuels' emissions from the farm to the tailpipe.
A $500,000 study paid for by the federal government and released Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change concluded cellulosic biofuels made with corn residue release 7 percent more greenhouse gases in the early years compared with conventional gasoline.
While biofuels are better in the long run, the study said they won't meet a standard set in a 2007 energy law to qualify as renewable fuel. That standard requires cellulosic biofuels to release 60 percent less carbon pollution than gasoline.
The issue was at the forefront of discussions by the Lake County Solid Waste Management District for years. A proposal by the district to bring a Powers Energy of America-run trash-to-ethanol plant to Schneider failed one year ago this month after four years of discussions and negotiations.
That plant would have turned municipal waste, not corn, into cellulosic biofuel. About half of the initial market in cellulosics is expected to be derived from corn residue.
Proponents of the plan said it would not have used the cash crop for fuel-making operations or impacted food supplies in the process. Opponents said the technology was not yet proven and the market for the fuel had yet to be established.
Carl Lisek, executive director of South Shore Clean Cities, works to promote alternate fuel use in the region.
The group worked to bring E85 to Family Express stations in the region. The city of Gary currently runs its police vehicles on ethanol. LaPorte, Crown Point and Whiting also run many municipal vehicles on ethanol, Lisek said.
Lisek's group was lauded in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Energy when the region showed the greatest reduction in petroleum use in the nation.
Clean Cities is a program administered by the U.S. Department of Energy to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and petroleum consumption in transportation while promoting environmental and energy independence by using alternative fuels.
Lisek said on Monday that South Shore Clean Cities was investigating the report.
"South Shore Clean Cities is currently working with the Department of Energy and its resources to provide comment," Lisek said.
The biofuel industry and administration officials criticized the research in the study as flawed, saying it was too simplistic in its analysis of carbon loss from soil.
The Environmental Protection Agency's own analysis, which assumed about half of corn residue would be removed from fields, found that fuel made from corn residue would meet the standard in the energy law.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said in a statement that the study "does not provide useful information relevant to the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from corn stover ethanol."