Don't wait for cheap biodiesel

Inexpensive biofuels are not the answer: They're part of the problem.


Andrew Leonard
March 22, 2006 10:42PM (UTC)

Treehugger alerts us today to a new campaign against the use of palm oil as a substitute for partially hydrogenated oils in cookies and crackers. Rain forests cut down for palm oil plantations are wiping out orangutan habitat, warns the Center for Science in the Public Interest in a chilling full-page advertisement in the New York Times.

The campaign would be even more powerful if it noted that palm oil's increasing popularity isn't only because of its usefulness as a substitute for transfats. As regular readers of How the World Works will recall, palm oil, which is cheaper and has higher oil content than soybeans or corn, is a burgeoning feedstock for commercially produced biodiesel. And as U.K. environmentalist George Monbiot has notoriously declared, that means that the environmentalist rush to biofuels threatens to doom, not just orangutans in Borneo, but rain forests all over the world.

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On Burnveggies, a mailing list discussion group devoted to biodiesel issues, the topic of environmentally sustainable biofuels is a regular concern. Yesterday, a discussion of Monbiot's "biodiesel-is-worse-than-fossil-fuel" call to arms popped up again, and Gretchen Zimmerman, one of the women who run Berkeley's BioFuel Oasis biodiesel fueling station, contributed one of the most thoughtful and eloquent articulations of the dilemma I've seen. Zimmerman graciously permitted me to quote her response at length:

"In my position as fuel buyer and e-mail answerer at BioFuel Oasis I'm seeing lots of e-mail from Malaysia offering us palm oil biodiesel. I also got to see the frantic interest in biodiesel that popped up in the weeks after Katrina, mostly from people looking for cheaper fuel. A lot of people who don't give a damn about the environment are jumping on this band wagon in the hopes of making a bunch of money. What is going to stop them from selling irresponsibly produced fuel? What is going to stop somebody who needs to get to work to feed his family from using it?

"The scarcity of the quality recycled fuel we thought we'd be selling at this stage is depressing. As fuel buyer I'm feeling the pressure of growing demand to get more fuel cheaper. From a purely business perspective we should be brokering rail cars of virgin GMO soy biodiesel to meet that demand. We're resisting that temptation at the Oasis and always on the lookout for better sources, but there are lots of [companies] out there who don't care.

"I fear that in focusing on the virtues of biodiesel we've forgotten to spread the message of how important conservation is. I'm seeing a lot of new customers come in all enthused and happy about switching to biodiesel. It gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling but I fear that many of them are not doing much else to change their lifestyles to reduce their footprint. I sometimes wonder if using biodiesel gives people an exaggerated sense of accomplishment that allows them to forget or ignore other more important lifestyle changes.

"I'm surprised by the number of people who ask me when biodiesel will get cheaper. We'll see little fluctuations in the price but in reality, as the petroleum supply dwindles, everything can only get more expensive. Increased demand for biodiesel will raise, not lower the price because supply will not be able to keep up. The fact that many of our customers don't understand this shows me that we've failed to get the truly important messages across."

The message is clear. Don't look for cheap biofuels. Seek out the expensive stuff, and be happy when you can find it.

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Andrew Leonard

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

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