Biodiesel: Bane of the rain forest?

Southeast Asian nations are razing tropical forests to make way for palm tree plantations.

By Andrew Leonard
Published December 13, 2005 7:27PM (EST)

I used to take great satisfaction in the sound of the recycling truck motoring down my Berkeley, Calif., street. That's because, in 2003, Berkeley struck a blow for sustainable fuels by converting its entire city-owned fleet of trucks to 100 percent biodiesel -- fuel made from vegetable source matter.

Then, this spring, Berkeley switched its trucks to a blend that was only 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular diesel, citing engine trouble caused by fungal buildup. There's been some push-back from local biodiesel activists (who swarm around Northern California like nowhere else) who claim that the real problem was that Berkeley wasn't maintaining its vehicles properly. Regardless, there was an easy lesson to draw from the experience: Even with the highest levels of progressive commitment, switching to so-called sustainable or renewable fuels is a hard slog.

Now comes word that some forms of biodiesel may actually be worse for the environment than the fossil fuels they are intended to replace. A column published in the U.K.'s Guardian by environmental activist George Monbiot argues that tropical nations are racing to cut down their remaining slivers of rain forest in order to plant vast palm tree plantations for the production of palm oil that will be converted into biodiesel.

In recent years, a combination of government subsidies, tax incentives and high oil prices have created a booming demand for both biodiesel, made from a variety of vegetable sources, and ethanol, made mostly from corn. The National Biodiesel Board reports that U.S. production of biodiesel is expected to triple in 2005 over last year, to a total of 75 million gallons.

Foreign production of biodiesel is set to ascend the same upward production curve. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are all banking on biodiesel and bringing new plants online. And so down go the rain forests.

In the U.S., most commercially available biodiesel is made from soybeans. But palm oil is considerably cheaper than soybean oil, so domestic producers are already coming under price pressure. In a classic example of the challenges of globalization, farmers in Minnesota, where biodiesel and ethanol have been embraced with more alacrity than in any other state in the union, are now worried that their new livelihood is being undercut by low-cost foreign competition.

Biodiesel activists have responded to the latest depressing news by calling for biodiesel labeling. For those of us in Berkeley, already carefully distinguishing between farm-raised and wild salmon, and searching for our free-range chickens certified to have passed away happily in their sleep, it will be one more thing to pay attention to. Biodiesel from used French fry oil: good. Biodiesel from Thailand: bad.

A more common response from many environmentalists is to note, once again, that this proves there is no magic bullet to solve what many see as an inevitable energy crisis of Armageddon-like proportions. The only answer, they say, is to cut back consumption. The idea that there will be some kind of technological breakthrough that clears up the energy bottleneck, writes Monbiot, "is the stuff of science fiction."

But that's where I'm ready to quibble. As I sit here typing away at my WiFi- enabled computer, living in a world where I can read Singaporean newspapers online as easily as my local rag, just a cubicle away from a hybrid-car-driving colleague, it is obvious to me that I am already living in a world that is the stuff of science fiction. To deny the possibility of further breakthroughs that will dramatically change the equations we currently live under is a form of anti-science pessimism that seems unbecoming to the environmental movement. By all means, let's conserve, let's label, let's be as rigorous as we can in striving to free ourselves from our current energy dilemmas. But let's never give up hope that there really is a better way.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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