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Biodiesel “Worse Than Fossil Fuel”

by Rob Friesel

George [tag]Monbiot[/tag] writes:

The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy […] with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back. […] The last time I drew attention to the hazards of making diesel fuel from vegetable oils, I received as much abuse as I have ever been sent by the supporters of the Iraq war. The [tag]biodiesel[/tag] missionaries, I discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as the executives of Exxon. I am now prepared to admit that my previous column was wrong. […] I was wrong because I underestimated the fuel’s destructive impact.

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

6 Responses to Biodiesel “Worse Than Fossil Fuel”

Joe-in-Texas says:

The core of your words above were written by a Neo Luddite named Monbiot as published in The Guardian. The problem with the Monbiot claims of negative aspects of the emerging biodiesel industry are just that – they are claims – unsupported.

He cites nothing but generalities and accusations. Where is his proof of all this destruction? How many hectares were destroyed? In what country? By whom? When? How did they do it. What company did the bad deed? What country official ordered the forest destroyed. How many countries are doing this? Which countries? When did it start? Who bought the oil seed crop?

All Monbiot has is hype and hysteria and lots of it.

Not so cordially – Joe-in-Texas

found_drama says:

Joe: Interesting that you automatically assume I side with him. “The core of my words above” were a direct quote — a thought question and nothing more. Too bad that you sign “not so cordially” rather than make an effort to strike a dialogue on the subject.

Your questions are certainly valid ones but don’t both raising them if you haven’t got the answer to them. Or even offer a decent counter-argument for that matter.

Where I’ll readily admit to agreeing with him is that there’s no substitute for reducing consumption. “Cutting back” goes beyond fuel. Cutting back applies just as much to sprawl and roads expansion as it does to the gas you’re putting in your tank.

That said, where are you on this issue?

JDS says:

It looks like I need to read the whole article, because I don’t completely understand Monbiot’s point.

He says that fossil fuel can’t simply be replaced – we need to conserve, he previously wrote an article stating that there are hazards to making veggie based fuel (curious what they are), he received flack from this by war supporters (which seems contrary, as I put war supporters and the petro oil hungry in the same category – why would the petro supporters be unhappy with his pointing out problems with a product that competes with the petro market?), then he unloads on the “biodiesel missionaries.” ?

It’s called Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for a reason – in that order. I don’t know anyone who disagrees with that. And of course it goes beyond what we put in our tank.

Monboit’s main point appears to be that diesel, and even biodiesel, aren’t the end all answer. But biodiesel was never meant to be the answer. It’s a transitional fuel designed to change our consumption without changing our habits. It uses the current infrastructure and nudges us towards something more sustainable. For that I think it’s useful (and the fact that it can decentralizes the fuel source – as diesel engines were originally designed). There are fanatical groups for everything. There are groups that are fanatical about biodiesel (National Biodiesel Board). But the rewards of biodiesel without a change in consumption habits and without a plan for the next sustainable fuel step are minimal at best. If nothing else it allows for debate and for an understanding that change is possible.

Your hypocritical neighbor,

JDS says:

Yes, I should have read the article before commenting. He highlights the destruction of the Southeast Asian rainforest in an attempt to provide the raw material needed for biodiesel production. “Instead of attempting to reduce demand, it is trying to alter supply.” That reinforces what we have all mentioned: this is as much, if not more, a demand side issue.

But I don’t see that this automatically makes biodiesel an evil akin to Exxon, as Monboit appears to attest. Again, biodiesel allows the production of fuel to come from ones own backyard. The fuel source can be rapeseed (canola), palm oil, animal fat, fryer oil, peanut butter oil, etc. Since the source can be so diverse, the impacts associated with the usage of the sources can be spread out in a way that oil can’t.

In my mind I see the source of our environmental problems to be related to the fact that we can and do shift the burdens associated with our standard of living. We keep from having to deal with the problems that our demands create by shifting the burden of making Gap pants for 84 cents to Taiwan, the bloodshed of the diamond minds to South Africa, and the oil wars to Iraq. As long as we don’t dig into the paper or look beyond our boarders (even though our dollars and material goods do), we are free from the anguish and don’t feel a need to change our habits.

But if we bring the supply closer to home, the extraction of resources and all of its pollution, degradation, etc, then we will have the greatest chance of changing the demand side of the equation. Monboit’s example demonstrates that perfectly in his Malaysia example. Malaysia is feeling the externalities that come along with their populace’s energy demands. Sure what’s happening to the rainforest is terrible, but at least what’s happening is closer to home. The burdens are no longer being shifted to the less fortunate.

That’s a bit pie-in-the-sky, and I’m aware of that. But I believe the best way to change demand is to bring the supply closer to home. Biodiesel is a chance to do this. Just imagine how resourceful and frugal we would be if we had to dispose all of our household garbage on our own property.
Just imagine.

found_drama says:

JDS– Thanks for commenting!

“Bringing the supply closer to home” is definitiely an aspect of this worth more consideration. I” admit I don’t know as much about biodiesel as I should (and certainly not as much as I want to) – – but I’m naturally skeptical of the panacea effect.

Lifestyle switches re: standard-of-living and other modal shifts are going to be necessary for us all. It’s heartening to see the local Berlin/Barre Park & Ride so full so often, for example. I’m intrigued to see how technologies like biodiesel, gasoline/electric hybrids, and fuel cells are going to change things but I’m still convinced that the most positive changes are going to be harder to accomplish longer-term re: requisite lifestyle changes that revolve around consumption.

JDS says:

I too am “skeptical of the panacea effect.” I have a grave distrust for fuel cells or any other technological advancement that puts power in the hands of a few. That’s how we got where we are with oil. That’s how we got Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Our level of energy consumption is unsustainable, period. A national search for another energy product does nothing but increase GDP. The reason that roof top solar panels work for people is because it brings its inhabitants closer to their energy source. When the batteries start to deplete, the owner curtails the demand.

The whole conversation is akin to the conversation about sprawl, for which is the subject of my favorite quote: “Widening roads to fight congestion is like loosening your belt to fight obesity.” The same thing is applicable in this instance.

The bus from Barre to Montpelier averages about 50% full during the main commuting times. This morning there were only three of us. When gas prices first spiked 100 days ago, so did the number of commuters. But just as peoples palate has become accustomed to $2+ a gallon, they have used their mass transit less. To me that’s sad, since all of the mass transit in the area is continually on the chopping block.

I’m really curious to see what it takes for people to really change their habits and rethink the “rural” lifestyle that is the custom in this here Vermont. The vast majority of the people who live in Middlesex, Walden, Marshfield, Roxbury, etc commute to one of the region’s population centers. What will it take for us to realize that the rural bedroom community is a bad idea? If one is only living the “rural life” between the hours of 6pm and 7am plus the weekends (with the exception of shopping trips) and driving 30+ miles two times a day/adult, then that person is as much if not more of an energy drain then a traditional suburbanite. It is completely different to travel from one population center to another where most of one’s necessities are available, but it’s different to live the urban life with urban conveniences in an area that is set up for a more self-sufficient way of life. It doesn’t seem that this topic has been offered for public discourse, but appears to me to be central to the question of how to deal with the energy crunch.

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