Features

Greener pastures?

Environment | Biodiesel advocates champion soybean oil and recycled French fry fat-but problems lurk beneath the hype

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

SEATTLE- Seattle business owner Joe Whinney turned off a quiet side street and backed his 2006 Volkswagen Jetta up a short driveway to an insulated plywood shed on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Inside that dilapidated structure stood an old-fashioned gas pump-an industrial relic more typical of lonely highway outposts than this urban neighborhood's mix of residential and light industrial space.

But Whinney didn't come to admire an antique. His interest centered on the long-overlooked technology gurgling within the pump's hoses. "Just fill it up," he said to a waiting attendant, who promptly squirted 13-plus gallons of modified vegetable oil into the Jetta's fuel tank.

A clipboard with a hand-written daily customer log lay nearby, listing the names of about a dozen drivers who, like Whinney, had bypassed the area's numerous petroleum-based diesel stations for the more expensive biodiesel at Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuel Werks. "Let's just say I'm a serious tree-hugger," said Whinney, the founder of an organic, fair-trade chocolate factory in town. "Biofuel, from all the research I've done, is just consistent with my personal values."

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For years, the retail side of the biodiesel industry has relied on such ideologically committed customers. Handfuls of entrepreneurial environmentalists have polka-dotted the country with fueling stations similar to Dr. Dan's, scraping by largely on the business of upper-middle-class patrons willing and able to pay a premium for lower carbon dioxide emissions and higher mileage per gallon.

As a niche market product, biodiesel delivers what conservationists demand-a clean, home-grown fuel manufactured either as a byproduct of various food crops or from recycled vegetable oil that restaurants and potato-chip plants would otherwise throw away. Low-blend biodiesel, such as B2 and B5, is equally sustainable and popular with farmers throughout the South and Midwest.

But the industry is changing: National Biodiesel Board spokesperson Amber Thurlo Pearson told WORLD that global sales of U.S.-produced biodiesel have tripled in each of the past two years, moving from 25 million gallons in 2004 to 225 million gallons in 2006. Construction is underway on 65 new biodiesel plants in the United States alone, and much of Europe is enamored with the fuel as a means to satisfy the emissions reduction requirements of the Kyoto Protocol.

Such skyrocketing demand raises serious questions about biodiesel's long-term sustainability. Soybeans, the primary crop from which the product is manufactured, produce only 50 gallons of biodiesel per acre. Sunflowers yield close to 100 gallons per acre and canola (rapeseed) can deliver as much as 150 gallons an acre. But even at those higher rates, biodiesel would require a massive expansion of existing farmland to make any significant dent in the fossil fuel market. And even the expanding waistline of French fries and potato chips leaves recycled deep-frying oil making up only a tiny fraction of fuel demands.

The global market has responded to these pressures with new vegetable oil supplies that should inspire gnashing of teeth among self-proclaimed tree huggers-were they not knee deep in denial. Tropical countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia are rushing to slash their remaining rain forests to make room for palm oil farms, the cheapest means for producing biodiesel's raw materials. Such deforestation threatens to increase worldwide carbon dioxide levels far more than the use of biodiesel could ever reduce them.

That tradeoff amounts to a sort of emissions outsourcing for European countries-a chance to fulfill Kyoto requirements and curry political favor without ultimately decreasing global contributions to climate change. The European Union has admitted the problem but decided against banning imported biodiesel due to potential hang-ups with world trade rules.

Such difficulties underscore a stark reality: Biodiesel, like ethanol and other faddish biofuels, is not a magic solution to the issues of foreign oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions. Contrary to the oversimplified contentions of committed biodiesel ideologues, the choice between fossil fuels and biofuels is inescapably tragic: Both products raise problems.

Biodiesel's problems extend stateside, too, although at a slower rate-since the Kyoto pact is not driving the industry. U.S. producers and distributors may not yet need tropical palm oil to create sufficient amounts of the alternative fuel, but their need for more farmland is already straining a limited resource.

Renewable Energy Group (REG), an Iowa-based company and the industry leader for sales of non-blended biodiesel, produces its product exclusively from soybeans grown within the United States. With four new production plants currently under construction and four more in a pre-construction phase, that business model could face a squeeze. Company spokesperson Alicia Clancy told WORLD that genetic engineering might solve the issue by increasing how much oil soybeans yield. Researchers are also looking into extracting usable oil from pond algae.

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