Saturday, December 01, 2007

biofuel debate?

I'm on some bio-diesel listserves, which I occasionally read just to get a sense of what can go wrong with my car. But recently there's been some debates that have caught my interest, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts here.

The chatter started when San Francisco decided to start a waste vegetable oil collection program. SF is going to start running some municipal diesels on it. Cool, I think. But then these articles surfaced on the list talking about the ecological dangers of biofuels.

First this not so good BeyondChron article, got it started. It really misconstrues a lot of arguments, and generally bashes everyone running anything bio. It references a couple of articles by George Monbiot which are much better written.

I had a very negative and defensive reaction to the BeyondChron article. At first it was knee-jerk defensiveness, but looking back at the article, it is a pretty shitty piece. I think my own negative reaction would have been mitigated if the following point (from the first Monbiot article) had been acknowledged first:
Before I go any further, I should make it clear that turning used chip fat into motor fuel is a good thing. The people slithering around all day in vats of filth are perfoming a service to society. But there is enough waste cooking oil in the UK to meet one 380th of our demand for road transport fuel(2). Beyond that, the trouble begins.
I'm not going to summarize the article here, just comment on it, so go read the Monbiot stuff if you're interested.

The line of criticism in these articles is interesting and deserves some attention, but I think both articles suffer from seeing biofuels as a one-fuel substitute for fossil fuels. This comes off as plain stupid to bio-diesel users and WVO users who want to encourage the diversity in fuel supply -and use a waste product- rather than be yet another vehicle burning dinosaurs.

Some of the claims made in the articles are also a bit misleading. The figure of "10 times more carbon emissions from bio-diesel" than fossil fuels seems particularly suspect because those carbon costs are primarily one time costs, rather than recurring costs. I don't know how they're glazing over the math there, but there's something disingenous about it.

That said, I do think that users of virgin veggie have some rethinking to do. The bio-fuels vs. food issue is one that is not quickly resolved, and while bio-fuels are becoming popular because they could address the spike in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, we've got to recognize that climate change is not the only environmental problem we face. Reaching some of the biofuel targets - producing 25%-33% of transportation fuel from plant matter - is only possible with huge increases in the environmental footprint. Switching to virgin veggie at that scale would certainly have huge environmental impact - not only in loss of biomass per acre, but on countless ecosystems, available water, food supplies... Adding those costs into the production costs for biofuels does change the balance considerably, and virgin veggie starts to look pretty shabby.

But virgin veggie isn't really what I'm into anyway. I've never considered running virgin vegetable oil as a reason to get a diesel. For me, it was about utilizing a waste product to make a fuel. This has been said everywhere before, but the solution for the transportation fuel problem is in a diversity of solutions - a combination of public transport, greater efficiency (hybrids, etc), renewable electric power sources, AND waste-flow utilization. Picking on bio-fuels because they can't be the whole solution doesn't make sense.

But a knee-jerk defense of bio-fuels doesn't make sense either. The criticism of biofuels surrounds virgin veggie, and the large-scale mono-cropping producers who would have bio-fuel be everything to everybody. Seen from this perspective, I don't feel a personal need to refute those criticisms. It also clarifies my interest in bio-diesel. I wouldn't be excited about doing bio-diesel myself if the waste-stream of used veggie oil was already completely utilized.

Another issue is representation-
I think it is important to realize that the home-schooled grease monkey burning WVO make great publicity for multi-national conglomerates cutting down virgin forests and draining peat. A sad problem. How much does publicity for waste vegetable oil re-use get confused with agri-business push to expand into fuel production?

I think it would be great for the environmentally minded (and re-use focused) bio-fuel users to be able to differentiate themselves from the agri-businesses who are promoting bio-fuels as the next fossil fuels. How would that PR coup be managed though? The small-scale recyclers don't really have the advertising or lobbying budgets...

something to think about.


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