Last week an email popped up in the Thetford Town Manager’s inbox. It came from Todd Easton, the Interim Manager of the Vermont Local Roads Initiative and was sent to everyone on the VT-Local Roads Listserv. Attached was a link to an article in Equipment World, with the title “California Math Shows Internal Combustion Beating Electric on Emissions.”
Our Town Manager, Bryan, is a busy individual and forwarded the article with a short comment that it was very interesting. It went to the Selectboard and the Police Chief. It also went to the chair of the Energy Committee who sent it to the whole committee and various other residents.
The article discusses a study by CARB, the California Air Resources Board, that in turn uses quotes from The Diesel Technology Forum, a “not-for-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of diesel engines, fuel, and technology.” The Forum asserts that biodiesel and renewable diesel are out-performing ethanol-fueled plus electrified cars, trucks, and buses by a 3:1 margin in terms of greenhouse gas reduction in California.
The article goes on to claim that in California, since 2011 according to the Diesel Forum, renewable diesel and biodiesel fuels accounted for a greater percentage of the state’s overall greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions than did the state’s electric vehicles (EVs). The deception here is it’s not the same as saying that diesel and biodiesel vehicles emit less GHG than do EVs. The data are not surprising, considering the huge number of diesel vehicles in CA. Even a small gain in efficiency adds up to a reduction in emissions. Compare that to a small number of EVs emitting zero GHG on the road—a number that was almost none in 2011—and of course the diesel/biodiesel GHG reduction looks bigger than that due to EVs. While EV sales are growing rapidly, they still account for only a fraction of vehicle sales in the state.
It also goes on to say that EVs actually cause GHG emissions to rise because nation-wide, 60% of electricity generation comes from burning of fossil fuels. The Diesel Form claims that “renewable fuels” like biodiesel score well because they come from plant and animal sources. It mentions biodiesel produced from soybeans plants as an example, and says it is “a form of solar energy” because soybean plants use photosynthesis and sunlight to grow. Therefore the claim is that a biodiesel truck is basically a solar-powered truck.
The Finnish company Neste, the world’s largest producer of biodiesel, asserts that GHG emissions can be reduced by up to 65% over the fuels’ life cycle when compared to fossil fuels.
Considering those claims, it’s worthwhile to examine some of the upsides and downsides of biodiesel and its production.
It is true that biodiesel is produced from plants and animals—fish oil and tallow being the chief animal-derived ingredients. Therefore it is renewable under the assumption that more plants and animals can be produced. It is also fair to say that some of the plant materials can be crop residue and even old restaurant oil that otherwise are waste materials. Biodiesel is also cleaner burning than fossil-derived diesel as it does not contain sulphur, and when burned it emits less GHG per unit volume than fossil diesel.
It’s also been touted that biodiesel production brings many jobs to remote or rural areas, and that every region has the potential to produce its own raw materials to make biodiesel, theoretically making it a more locally produced auto fuel.
But there is a lot about biodiesel that is not covered in these statements.
A lot of biodiesel, like the soybean example, comes from food crops. Less wealthy countries, particularly in South America and Southeast Asia, see a new source of revenue to balance trade deficits and therefore create the incentives to grow crops for biofuel instead of food. This pushes up food prices and results in food shortages in countries where, for many families, buying food is the biggest household expenditure. When food becomes unaffordable, social unrest and instability soon follow.
Growing crops like soybeans for biodiesel demands abundant water and large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. Fertilizer production is energy-intensive, requiring the chemical fixing of nitrogen into ammonium nitrate under extreme heat and pressure. Excess fertilizer and pesticides enter water bodies, polluting groundwater and rivers all the way to the sea.
When agricultural land that produced food is commandeered for biodiesel crops, the demand for both food and biofuel causes undeveloped land to be opened up for agriculture. In other words, forests that play a major role in sequestering large amounts of carbon are cleared. Philip Fearnside, a researcher at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon in Manaus, Brazil, is quoted as saying, “Soybean farms cause some forest clearing directly. But they have a much greater impact on deforestation by consuming cleared land, savanna, and transitional forests, thereby pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers ever deeper into the forest frontier.”
Palm oil is a food commodity that is easy to produce and convert to biodiesel. About 50% of the palm oil imported into Europe alone is used for biofuel. Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries have become a palm oil goldmine, resulting in mass destruction of forest for palm oil plantations. Between 2001 and 2016, two million hectares of forest were destroyed for palm oil plantations in Indonesia alone. And there is collateral damage, such as smallholders and indigenous people brutally forced off their land and the impending extinction of forest-dependent wildlife including the orangutan (fewer than 80,000 remaining), the Sumatran elephant (fewer than 3,000 remaining), the Bornean pygmy elephant (about 1,500 remaining), the Sumatran rhino, and the Sumatran tiger (fewer than 400 remaining.) The methods used to produce and transport palm oil consume large amounts of fossil fuel. And added to that, the practices of forest burning and the draining and burning of peat bogs in conversion to farmland have made Indonesia one of the world’s biggest emitters of GHGs.
When its full life cycle is accounted for, it is estimated that palm oil biodiesel produces 2-3 times the GHG emissions of fossil fuel diesel.
Diesel Technology Forum is a marketing platform. But we should at least be alert when they stretch the truth in absurd ways, like calling a biodiesel truck “basically a solar truck” because a plant used photosynthesis to generate the fuel. So did the plants that eventually turned into fossil fuels millions of years ago.
To be fair, EVs are not a flawless solution either. They require rare materials often mined destructively in less wealthy countries with abusive governments. And their actual GHG emissions depend on how the electricity is generated. A true transition to a clean energy economy needs to include a great deal more solar generation, but above all, a huge decrease in the overall amount of energy that we use.
Sadly, many towns were sent the misleading biodiesel article because they use the VT-Local Roads Listserv. Todd Easton had good intentions, but he was not aware of the full picture.