Friday, June 27, 2008

BioDiesel: A Not So Green Alternative

Oil prices are through the roof and the planet is getting hotter. We are facing an energy crisis and many truckers, and other professional drivers, have been forced to stay parked until the prices come down.

With no relief in sight a lot of “green” advocates are jumping on the biodiesel bandwagon. After all it’s a cheaper, cleaner burning fuel and most diesel engines need little or no modifications to start using it*. However, recent studies suggest that biodiesel might not be the “green” solution many are hoping for.

Biodiesel is heralded as an alternative, cleaner burning cousin to diesel. It’s made through the processing of various forms of vegetable oil. It is then blended with conventional diesel or used alone. Biodiesel can be manufactured using waste vegetable oils, like those thrown out by fast-food restaurants. However, a rising demand has lead to the cultivation of farmland for the sole purpose of growing crops for the manufacture of biodiesel fuel.

Approved and toted as a “clean air” fuel, even a 20% biodiesel mix creates a significant reduction in CO2 emissions. The way biodiesel burns is not a point of concern. The way that it is currently being produced, may raise an environmentalist eyebrow or two.

The well respected Science magazine released two reports this year calling attention to the destruction of essential rain forest and other vital natural habitats and eco-systems due to the increased demand for palm, soy and other vegetable oils for bio-diesel production. (Report 1) (Report 2)

These studies warn that biodiesel may not be as green as it seems here’s why:

More Green House Gases
According to the studies the process of clearing grasslands, rain forests, and other land for farming actually releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than would be saved by the fuel that the land produces. Not to mention the natural CO2 absorption that is stopped when this dense growth is destroyed. Considering farm land absorbs less CO2 and produces less oxygen than the rain forest or other growth it replaces, the farming and production of oils for bio-fuel arguably does more to harm the environment than to help it.

Of course this “clearing” of farmland for bio-fuels also lends to other problems:

Killing Endangered Species
In Borneo, by 2020 most of the rain forest will be gone. It is home to thousands of unique species of insect and animals, including the endangered Sumatra and Borneo Orangutan, the Sumatra Tiger, Asian Elephant and Sumatran Rhinoceros. In fact the conditions are so dire in Indonesia and Borneo it is estimated that if we continue at the current rate of destruction, the Orangutan will be extinct in 10 years. (

Creating Dead Zones In the Gulf of Mexico
A “Dead Zone” is an oxygen starved patch in the ocean. These “Dead Zones” occur all around the world and are caused by decomposing algae which depletes the oxygen and suffocates marine life. According to the June edition of National Geographic, the main cause of the rise in “Dead Zones” in the Gulf of Mexico is runoff of fertilizer that comes down the Mississippi. With farmers growing more corn for biodiesel, more fertilizer is being used resulting in the death of marine life.

The World Food Crisis

The world is already experiencing a global food shortage. The price of wheat has doubled in the last year, and palm, soy, and other food prices are rising across the board. If more crops are grown for fuel less will be grown for food. Tearing down the rain forest for farmland is bad enough, millions of starving people is even worse.

By the end of this year, Europe wants all diesel fuel to contain 5% biodiesel. By 2012 20% of all diesel fuel must be biodiesel. The only way the world’s farmers can keep up with rising demands is to clear more land for farming.

The allure of cheaper, cleaner burning fuels can cause many uninformed “greenies” to applaud the advantages of biodiesel fuel; however there is one buzzword that must be remembered in any conversation about new energy: sustainability.

The facts are clear. We cannot continue to abuse the ecosystem to support our accustomed lifestyle. Fortunately, world leadership is starting to take notice, and people are finally starting to look for new sustainable energy answers. Unfortunately, however, bio-diesel may not be the perfect solution everyone was hoping for.

(*Note: bio-diesel is a solvent and will eat your rubber fuel lines and seals, older vehicles are more susceptible to this possibility. Make sure your fuel lines are non-rubber if you plan to use biodiesel.)

Original here

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