Sustainable Biodiesel: The Ecological Cost of Fuel

Motivated to help the environment and support the American economy, many consumers of biodiesel go out of their way to get the fuel — and pay a premium price for it. But what if, after all that effort, their biofuel contributed to deforestation in Asia, traveled across the globe using fossil fuels and actually encouraged global warming?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, biodiesel made from virgin soybean oil is energy efficient, yielding 3.2 units of fuel energy for every 1 unit of fossil fuel energy used to produce it, while reducing lifecycle CO2 emissions by 78%. Soybeans, which grow well in the United States, produce about 50 gallons of oil per acre, while palm trees, with the most productive oil seed in the world, yield about 650 gallons per acre.

Because of these high oil yields, the biodiesel industry is now seeing rainforests cut down in places like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to grow palm oil for American and European biodiesel production. Rainforests are a carbon sink, constantly taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and releasing oxygen.

Biodiesel can prevent CO2 from being released into the atmosphere but, if the feedstock used is palm oil from formerly forested land, it would take over 100 years of biodiesel production to make up for the loss of the forest.

“The story on palm seems to be completely focused on the detriment it brings to our ecosphere and global populations. Doom and gloom… Palm oil will be coming to U.S. markets in the form of palm methyl-esters [biodiesel] whether we like it or not… [and] consumers must differentiate between ‘good’ palm and ‘bad’ palm,” said Kevin Kuper of Whole Energy in Seattle. “If we can follow the lifecycle of one palm farm and decide that those products are worth an extra $0.15 [a gallon] over palm grown otherwise — still nearly $1.00 less than U.S. domestic oil crop biodiesels — and we follow our dollars back to schools and hospitals would it not be sustainable?”

The Sustainable Biodiesel Summit (SBS), in its fourth year and growing, attempted to bring the sustainability issue to the forefront last week. Originally a California-based group called the California Biodiesel Consumer Conference, the Sustainable Biodiesel Summit grew into a national movement when groups from North Carolina and Colorado began attending.

Focusing on feedstocks, fuel quality, energy efficient processing and small business modeling, the summit held in San Antonio, Texas, provided a place for like-minded members of the biodiesel industry and public to share innovations, best practices and address challenges.

“People feel isolated and crazy for doing biodiesel on a community scale,” reflected SaraHope Smith, an organizer of the summit. “But coming here they can connect with other people who are doing community scale biodiesel and learn what they need to learn to make it happen. We are building a community across the country.”

This year 130 people registered for the summit. Many are entrepreneurs like Rob Del Bueno from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, who produces biodiesel on a small scale for customers including Emory University and Frankie Lind, a biodiesel producer and editor of biodieselSMARTER, a new print magazine written for biodiesel producers by biodiesel producers. But how can consumers tell if their biodiesel is made sustainably?

While the SBS devoted its wrap-up session to discussing industry standards for sustainability—and companies like Pacific Biodiesel are devoted to producing biodiesel sustainably and duplicating that model in other regions—the answer is that right now there is no easy way for consumers to know: people would have to trace back the fuel to the producer and from there find out where the feedstock came from, do some math, and then make a judgment call on what they consider sustainable. It would be arbitrary and way too much to ask of the public.

“Big biodiesel has a lot of questions that need to be addressed. We need to ensure that the implications of the product are sustainable. Labeling biodiesel produced sustainably allows consumers to decide where their money goes,” said Del Bueno.

The Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance (SBA), a group that includes some famous faces like Daryl Hannah, Annie Nelson, wife of Willie Nelson, and Laura Louie, wife of Woody Harrelson, is developing ways to measure and market sustainable biodiesel practices.

The SBS will be meeting again at this year’s Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) conference on May 31 in Berkeley, California, and again before the National Biodiesel Board Conference in Orlando, Florida, next February. The SBS and SBA will be working throughout the year to develop sustainability standards for the biodiesel industry.

“Biodiesel can be made sustainably. Our whole lives can be re-made sustainably. We’re kind of pioneering old, pre-fossil fuel territory from our current vantage point—and we need each other to figure out how to do it. The SBS supports us in creating that new model together—creating models for each other,” said Smith.

Meghan Murphy is a founding member and now acting president of Ithaca Biodiesel, a worker-owned biodiesel cooperative in Ithaca, New York.

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