Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bio-Confusion- the Biofuels debate

Last week the Seattle PI wrote a big piece about the food vs fuel debate.. My big beef is that biodiesel has gotten lumped under the term biofuels which have gotten a bad name because of ethanol from corn... I wrote a letter to the editor responding, which they didn't publish, but hey, that's the beauty of having a blog! Here 'tis:

I think it's a good thing that there is a debate about the environmental sustainability of biofuels, but as "Dr Dan" Freeman is quoted as saying in the article "Bio-debatable: Food vs fuel," biodiesel is being unfairly maligned because people are confusing ethanol issues with biodiesel issues and painting them all with the same brush with the now dirty word "biofuels." A lot of the reason biofuels have gotten a bad name is because of the unsustainable way that ethanol is produced in this country- from corn, which is displacing food crops and yielding a marginal greenhouse gas and energy benefit. Also, a lot of attention has been given to biodiesel made from palm oil which is sometimes obtained by cutting down rain forest, obviously not a good thing, yet according to the NW Biofuels Association less than 0.1% of all biodiesel made in the US is made from palm oil (which mostly goes to food and cosmetics). Most biodiesel in this country is made from soybeans, where the oil is a byproduct of generating the crushed meal which is mostly fed to cattle. (This fact alone should have us thinking more about becoming vegetarians than use of biodiesel when trying to come up with solutions to the global food crisis). A major study by the National Renewable Energy Labs states that biodiesel made from soybean oil yields over three times as much energy as required to produce it, and reduces greenhouse gases by 78% relative to diesel fuel production. When produced from waste restaurant oil, other studies have shown a 7 fold energy gain and 90 - 95% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. True there's not enough waste restaurant oil to solve the world's energy needs, but there are other environmentally responsible ways to produce biodiesel too. A farmer from Eastern Washington wrote in to the NW Biodiesel discussion list that the canola oil she contributes to the area's biodiesel refinery is grown on marginal land with minimal inputs and no pesticides and is such a nutritious source of pollen and nectar that it helps the bees recover from the fruit and nut pollination season. Similarly, mustard seed can grow where food crops can not, and the crush yields a natural pesticide.

And let's look at other costs. Diesel exhaust has been shown to contain at least 15 known carcinogenic compounds. Biodiesel carcinogenic emissions are 90 - 95% lower, and the pure fuel is non-toxic enough to drink (I like to take a sip when I do presentations!). Also, are these studies comparing biodiesel to petrodiesel taking into account the full environmental and health costs of the military protection of our world's primary oil sources? Are they factoring in the highly polluting transportation by diesel fuel burning ships thousands of miles to carcinogen spewing oil refineries? (think "cancer alley" in Louisiana). Doesn't it make a heck of a lot more sense to transport our fuel source over a few mountain ranges than over a few thousand miles from the Middle East?

Biodiesel is a clean burning fuel that should get some more positive press as a way to begin to clean up diesel emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Certainly we need to consider the environmental aspects of our fuel sources, but also recognize that there are levels of sustainability in production methods, and not be sucked in by generalizations such as "biofuels are a scourge" as Duff Badgely was quoted as saying in the PI article. As someone who has been happily making all his own fuel for over five years from waste restaurant oil (and teaching others to do the same), I shake my head over the confusion and bad press over biodiesel, and hope people will take another look.


Grant said...

Good letter. These people who are against "biofuels" are either thoughtless or shills for big oil. Even if some portion of land devoted to fuel crops could be used for food, how do they think the food is going to get harvested and into the stores?

In fact, as your examples cite, many fuel crops either have a food co-product or can be grown in marginal soil. Some, like cellulosic ethanol, can be made from yardwaste and sawdust. People need to wake up. The oil is running out, and we have to use the time left to get replacements on line, or we're in for disaster.

David D. Spencer said...

Lyle: In light of Sunday's big article I hope you will send this information to the Times/PI again!

Thanks again for your time in Bellevue on Saturday.

David Spencer