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Biodiesel

For a comprehensive and critical perspective on the reality of Biodiesel, we recommend to visit Biodiesel Reality Check

[Printable PDF version of this factsheet]



Energy Justice Network: Heating and Transportation Fuels

Biodiesel is one of several liquid fuels posed as an alternative to using oil or natural gas to meet transportation and heating needs.

Other false solutions being promoted to satisfy our heating and transportation needs include ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, other biomass or waste-based fuels and coal-based liquid fuels. All of these have significant environmental, social and economic costs, especially to the communities that would host the production facilities of these alternative fuels.

Truly clean solutions focus on conservation and efficiency first, then meet energy needs with passive solar, solar hot water, ground-source (geothermal) and air-source heat pumps and clean electricity (from wind and solar). See our platform and our energy hierarchies chart for more on clean alternatives.

What is Biodiesel?

Biodiesel is fuel derived from animal or vegetable fats. Biodiesel fuel is processed and refined from raw materials with high oil content. Biodiesel can be mixed with petroleum diesel at any concentration in most modern diesel engines, although engine performance may decrease. Biomass fuel (such as used vegetable oil), is unrefined fuel which cannot be used in a typical engine. Biodiesel has recently been heavily promoted as the ideal fuel for transportation needs. The environmental costs of biodiesel have been overlooked in this process. The production of the raw materials used to make biodiesel requires a large input of energy and land resources. The refining process produces pollution through air emissions and solid waste products.

The Problems with Biodiesel

Producing Raw Materials (Soybeans)

Biodiesel commercially produced in the United States currently comes, almost exclusively, from soybeans. While it may be true soybeans are renewable in the sense that can be grown again, they are by no means a source of renewable energy. Worldwide production of vegetable oil and animal fat is no where sufficient enough to replace liquid fossil fuel use.

  1. Growing Soybeans: Soybeans, which are currently harvested from 72 million acres in the United States [1], require a large input of fossil fuels through the use of fertilizers and in planting and harvesting. Large-scale agriculture also contributes to water pollution through runoff, causes increased erosion and loss of topsoil, contributes to loss of biodiversity by converting native habitats to monoculture crops and is harmful to natural ecosystems through the use of pesticides and herbicides. Genetically modified soybeans are an increasing hazard to ecosystems in a natural balance (92% of soy is currently genetically-engineered [2]). Genetic engineering for herbicide tolerance has led to increased use of herbicides (13% increase on average), [3] and to the increased appearance of herbicide-resistant weeds. Farmers in the south and mid-west are finding herbicide-resistant weeds that have been spread between fields by floodwaters. [4] Roundup has also been found to be more dangerous than previously thought, being highly lethal to amphibians. [5]

    Biotech crops have also been soundly criticized for numerous other reasons including; potential for allergies and health problems, [6] undermining organic agriculture through contamination of non-biotech varieties, and even farmers being sued by Monsanto for “stealing” their “property” when Monsanto’s biotech crop genes end up contaminating the crops of farmers who haven’t planted them.

    Elsewhere in the world, biodiesel production is linked to massive destruction of rainforests, peatlands, savannas, and grasslands as thousands of acres worldwide are cleared to plant palm oil and soybean plantations. [7] Growing these crops requires extracting and transporting water and causing issues with soil depletion, air and water pollution, genetic pollution from biotech crops, hunger, and net energy loss.

  2. How Many Acres of Soybeans are Needed? In order produce enough biodiesel to convert our entire transportation needs to soy biodiesel, we would need to plant 2.8 billion acres of farmland in soybeans. In the US, roughly 302 million acres of land is now used for growing crops, with the majority of that actually being used to produce animal feed for the meat industry. Each car in the US would need approximately 10 acres of soybeans to supply its fuel needs. While corn-based ethanol is energy intensive, soy-based biodiesel is land intensive – taking 5 times more land to produce the equivalent of biofuel energy. Consider vegetarianism saving land from avoiding wasteful cycling of food crops through animals to produce food; however, vegetarians using biodiesel made from soybeans are usurping 6 times more land for their cars than their beef-eating counterparts are for cows. [9]


    Current Petroleum Diesel Used for Transportation 60 billion gallons [8]
    Current Gasoline Used for Transportation 120 billion gallons [8]
    Biodiesel needed to Replace US Transportation Needs 140.8 billion gallons [8]
    Approximate Biodiesel Usage 500 gallons per year per car [9]
    Trucks & Cars in the United States 243 million [10]
    Biodiesel Yield from Soybeans 50 gallons per acre [11]
    Farmland in Soybeans 72 million acres [1]
    Total Cropland (Includes Pasture)

    434 million acres [12]


  3. Producing Soybean Oil: In addition the energy intensive growing of soybeans, the crushing of soybeans to produce soybean oil uses energy and produces pollution. "Preparation of beans involves removal of the beans’ hulls, as well as grinding and flaking. Flaked beans
    are then subjected to an extraction step in which hexane is used to remove the soybean oil. The extracted
    beans are dried and ground to produce a marketable meal product. Oil-containing hexane is then
    processed to separate the volatile hexane phase from the oil. Hexane solvent is recovered and recycled as
    much as possible. Finally the oil product is washed with water to remove gums before the final oil
    product is stored or shipped." Life Cycle Inventory of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel for Use in an Urban Bus. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Energy. May 1998. (Page 120)


  4. Net Energy Loss: Recent studies have shown that there is a net energy loss in the production of ethanol. Biodiesel, as well, costs more energy to produce than is gained from the process. Producing biodiesel from "soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced," Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower. Natural Resources Research, 2005. David Pimentel and Ted W. Patzek. Press Release. Paper (PDF).

Other Issues in Biodiesel Production

  1. Other Biodiesel Crops

    Productive Capacity of Biofuels per acre: [7]

    • Soybean: 40 to 50 US gal/acre
    • Rapeseed: 110 to 145 US gal/acre
    • Mustard: 140 US gal/acre
    • Jatropha: 175 US gal/acre
    • Palm Oil: 650 US gal/acre
    • Algae: 10,000 to 20,000 US gal/acre

    While soybeans are among the least productive source of fat for the production biodiesel, soybean production is the only crop now grown in a quantity that could produce enough biodiesel to be used in a commercial market. 90% of biodiesel is currently produced from soy. Only 10% is from recycled cooking oil. [13]

  2. Palm Oil & Biodiesel

    Environmentalists, US and particularly European governments have been campaigning for biodiesel to be make up a percentage of fuels used. By doing so, a market is being created for the import of biodiesel made from palm oil. Refineries are being built in Malaysia and Singapore and Africa, to name a few. In "Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest have been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares are scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5 million in Indonesia." Read more about the impact of promoting the import of biodiesel from palm oil, in a report by Robert Minoto.

Biodiesel Refineries (needs updating...)

Supplying a 5-million-gallon biodiesel refinery requires about 100,000 acres of crops. [15]
All of the following can be used in the production of biodiesel:

Vegetable Fats: virgin oil feedstock, rapeseed and soybean oils, mustard, palm oil, hemp, and algae, waste vegetable oil

Animal Fats: tallow, lard, yellow grease, Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil

Air Emissions:

See sample permit for the Minnesota Soybean Processors in Brewster, Marshall County, Minnesota.

Waste Products:

The oil and grease skimmed off the wastewater is landfilled; the remaining wastewater is sent to
the municipal sewer system.[16]

Existing Biodiesel Refineries

Map and list of all existing and proposed biodiesel production facilities as of June 2008. [PDF]

Proposed Biodiesel Refineries

Map of proposed expansions. [PDF]

Searching Google News, you can find many links for articles about proposed biodiesel refineries.

Louisville, KY. Rubbertown Emergency Action and Kentucky Resources Council is opposing a proposed biodiesel facility in their town. (Poultry fat conversion)

Emissions from Biodiesel

Since biodiesel burns hotter than diesel, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions are actually higher and up to nearly 3 1/2 times that of gasoline. [17] While biodiesel is cleaner than conventional diesel in many other ways, it’s still dirtier (more air polluting) than gasoline. Biofuels in general “result in more atmospheric CO2 pollutants than burning an energy equivalent amount of oil" when considering the entire production and consumption cycle ("well-to-wheel"). If the motivation for biofuels is to combat global warming, the title of a New Scientist article in August 2007 summed up the latest studies well: “Forget biofuels - burn oil and plant forests instead.” [18]

Biodiesel Politics

Largely because of this net energy problem, the cost of biodiesel is actually significantly higher than diesel or gasoline, though this may not be reflected at the pump due to subsidies. U.S. tax payers will contribute up to $11 billion dollars to subsidize biodiesel between 2006 and 2012 averaging $2/gallon of biodiesel consumed, and $2.20/gallon of conventional diesel equivalent. [19] In addition, biodiesel input crops themselves are also heavily subsidized. Soy is currently the 4th most subsidized crop in the U.S., receiving $5.75 million in 2007 alone. [20] Typically with subsidies, most are disproportionately paid to large-scale farms often growing genetically modified crops. [21] There are also other hidden costs in soy production like land reclamation costs and subsidies to the oil and natural gas industries which soy production depends on (in the form of cash handouts, lax standards and enforcement, and military invasions).

Promoting Heating and Transportation Fuel
Alternatives on a Small Scale


Although no current viable options exist for replacing transportation and heating fuel needs, on a small scale you can significantly reduce the amount of these fuels that you use. Here are some suggestions:

  • Lower Your Heating Needs: Choose a smaller house, insulate better (Energy Star tips), choose passive solar heating techniques if you are building or renovating, invest in a programmable thermostat, lower the thermostat
  • Fly as infrequently as possible
  • Drive less, choose more efficient and hybrid cars, keep your car well maintained and use driving techniques that use the least amount of gas
  • Walk, bike, carpool, telecommute and use public transportation whenever possible
  • Advocate for better designed cities (reduce sprawl) that encourage walking and biking
  • Consume products produced closest to where you live
  • Grow your own food, eat lower on the food chain and choose local and less processed foods. About half of your household energy use comes from the food you eat [20].

Waste Vegetable Oil

Diesel engines which have been converted can run on 100% recycled vegetable oil leftover from use in restaurants and food processing. Recent increases in gas prices has motivated many people to switch their diesel running vehicle over to 100% vegetable oil operated. Greasecar is a company that sells the expensive, but relative simple conversion technology. Users with Greasecar's conversion get a supply of oil from Chinese restaurants or fast food restaurants, filter the oil and fill their car up with it. Waste vegetable oil could never be used at a large scale, because restaurants in the US produce about 2.5 billion pounds (300 million gallons) of waste cooking oil annually. [21]

Hydrogen and Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Various forms of Hydrogen are promoted as an alternative to fossil based fuels. Click the above link for further information.

Sources:

  1. Trends in U.S. Agriculture, USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service
  2. ""Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.: Soybean Varieties," ." USDA Economic Research Service. July, 2008.
  3. "Troubled Times Amid Commercial Success for Roundup Ready Soybeans,"Benbrook, Charles M., Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center. May 3, 2001
  4. “Still another flood problem to worry about: herbicide-resistant weeds”University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture
  5. “Dr. Relyea Responds to Monsanto's Concerns About His Research on the Toxicity of Herbicide Roundup.”Relyea Lab, University of Pittsburgh, April 1, 2005.
  6. Smith, Jeffrey M., Seeds of Deception, Yes! Books, 2003.
  7. “For Europe, A Second Look At Biofuels?” March 16, 2008 by Green Car Congress
  8. "European Environment Agency Scientific Committee Calls for Suspension of Europe’s 10% Biofuels Target” April 10, 2008 by Green Car Congress



    "New Studies Identify Change in Land Use Associated with Biofuel Production as Major Contributor of Greenhouse Gases, Far Offsetting Benefits of Most Current Biofuels” Feb. 8, 2008 by Green Car Congress



    “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt” Fargione, et al, Science Feb. 7, 2008

    NEW NUMBERS

  9. Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae, UNH Biodiesel Group
  10. Biodiesel: it's what you make out of it, Gristmill
  11. Number of US Aircraft, Vessels, and Other Conveyances, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2004.
  12. Oil Yields and Characteristics, Journey to Forever
  13. State Fact Sheets: United States, Economic Research Service, USDA
  14. "Biodiesel Boom Well-Timed," Wired, June 2004.
  15. "Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower,", Pimental and Patzek, Natural Resources Research, March 2005.
  16. Biodiesel refinery idea holds promise for Valley, The Spokesman-Review, September 29, 2005
  17. Life Cycle Inventory of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel for Use in an Urban Bus. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Energy. May 1998. Page 192 (Graph) and page 266 are useful.
  18. "Well-to-Wheel Analysis of Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Traffic Fuel Chains", Huikuri, Sanna, 2004.
  19. "Forget biofuels - burn oil and plant forests instead.”New Scientist, August 2007.
  20. "Biofuels—at what Cost? Government Support for Ethanol and Biodiesel in the United States: 2007 Update” , Koplow, Doug. Prepared in October 2007 for The Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)
  21. The SUV in the Pantry, Thomas Starrs
  22. Costilla County Biodiesel Waste-to-Energy Demonstration