Advanced corn ethanol was once thought to be a viable energy alternative to filthy gasoline; a cleaner burning fuel that could someday enjoy wide-scale usage and help to mitigate climate change. Yet a new study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has found that ethanol made from corn leftovers may actually be more harmful to the environment than the traditional fossil fuel.
The problem is that removing "corn residue" from fields to produce cellulosic ethanol reduces the soil's ability to trap carbon dioxide, according to the study. When extrapolated to account for mass production, the incidental emissions would be about 7 percent greater than the total emissions from gasoline.
That finding puts some hard numbers behind an interesting note in the U.N.'s latest climate change report, which said "indirect emissions" from biofuels "can lead to greater total emissions than when using petroleum products."
That said, the EPA dismissed the study because it assumed all of a corn field's waste would be used for ethanol production, an assumption the EPA said was "an extremely unlikely scenario that is inconsistent with recommended agricultural practices." And the study did note that emissions could be offset by planting cover crops, so it's not guaranteed that cellulosic ethanol production using corn would have to be more harmful to the planet than gasoline.