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Think biofuels are better for the environment than gasoline? Think again

That's the word from University of Michigan researchers, who recently studied the claim that biofuel is carbon-neutral.

The recent rise in oil prices is reflected in high gas prices at the pump at a gas station in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)
Brooks Kraft, Corbis via Getty Images

Plants should be a carbon-neutral source of fuel, you'd think. The plants soak up carbon dioxide while they grow, and when they're turned to fuel and burned to provide power, that carbon dioxide goes back into the atmosphere. Simple, right? Well, a new study from the University of Michigan shows that, no, it's not that simple.

UM's study, which used US Department of Agriculture data and appeared in the Climatic Change journal, showed that increased CO2 uptake during a period of biofuel production ramp-up only offset about 37 percent of the CO2 created from burning that fuel. Researchers claim that using more biofuel has actually increased net CO2 output.

Biofuel use is increasing at a rapid pace. In 2005, we burned just 4.2 billion gallons of liquid biofuel, which includes corn ethanol and biodiesel. In 2013, that figure rose to 14.6 billion gallons. This move has a number of factors behind it, including farming subsidies and policies promoting the use of allegedly greener fuels.

The misconception came largely from models that use a technique called "lifecycle analysis." Instead of using models, UM researchers pored over real-world data on fuel production and vehicle emissions, which led to the conclusion that biofuels aren't so green after all.

That said, there's one big grain of salt that needs to be taken with this information. It's obviously not damning, but some of this study's funding came from the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association that represents oil and natural gas production. Of course that group will be salty about plant-based biofuels taking some of their market away.

But, this is a study rooted in empirical evidence, and a shill for oil companies can't magically tweak US DoA data to fit its agenda.

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