Thursday, June 28, 2007

Biofuel Isn't Golden Yet

If you’re like me, you get a curious little quiver of excitement when you think about biofuels. Stick it to the oil companies, damn it! Those greedy, all-time record profit conglomerates that suck crude out of the ground in oh-so-unstable parts of the world, helping BushCo wage greedy little wars so they can pump up the costs and make us pay a significant portion of our take-home-pay at the filling station. Yes, the souls of the oil executives run as dark as their product.

Ah, but now we have biofuels. Just take that grease from evil obesity-causing fast food chains and refine it to burn in your VW bus and go happily along down the road smelling like French fries. What could be better? No crude oil went into that engine, thank you!

But there isn’t enough used canola cooking oil to fuel every car, nor do most people care to convert their garage into a refining station. Thus enters the biofuels market.

Now biofuels outlets are popping up all over the place. BioWillie, for instance.

And thus we enter into a glorious future where new and altruistic start-ups fuel our cars with biofuel, crude oil looses its grip on the car fuel market, the world gets less greenhouse gases, there is less and less smog to breathe into our asthma-riddled bodies, and we all live in a happy, hippie, utopia as golden as the canola we feed to our cars.

But wait. It’s never that simple.

Originally, biofuels came from corn. However, even though corn farmers have grown more maize in the U.S. than ever before, they are facing a deficit in the amount that goes to human and livestock food. Too much is going to biofuel, and growing every day, putting our dinner plates at risk for too little deep fried goodies. What are we to do? (HERE is an article discussing the tradeoff).

Okay, so if we can’t get biofuel from corn, we can look for other alternatives. No problem. Corn only yields 18 gallons per acre of refined biodiesel. It’s at the bottom of the list of alternatives, even though it is currently the easiest to grow.

The most promising source for biofuel oils is algae. I’ve blogged on this before. Early research suggests you can get an amazing 10,000 gallons of biofuel per acre of algae, presumably grown in massive vats in the deserts of the world. Unfortunately, research on this lucrative area has only just begun, so we must turn to other options in the meanwhile.

Well, how about trees? Wood pulp contains oils which are now able to be processed out, according to THIS article. But this, too, is a very early technology, far from release. And we wouldn’t want to cut down even more forests, would we? Being good flaming liberals, like me, you would rather forests go to spotted owls.

Well, there are many other alternative crops with large oil content, such as rice, soybean, olives, avocado, or opium poppy. But these face the same old problems of interfering with food sources, being unable to be grown in large enough quantities, or, in the case of poppy, are simply illegal.

That leaves oil palm. At 625 gallons of refined biofuel per acre, it’s near the top of the list of potential biofuel sources. These lovely palm trees produce fruit very rich in oil. So much, in fact, that it is the second-most produced cooking oil in the world, behind soybean oil. Grow ‘em up in orchards and harvest the fruit, and you’re in the biofuel business. Malaysia, for instance, is a leading nation in converting its cars to biofuel, growing orchards of oil palm, and creating biofuel refineries.

Ah, but here’s that evil little catch: where do you grow them? Why, you have to cut down wide swaths of old growth hardwood forests, or grow over precious crop or grazing land, or fill in delicate marshy ecosystems.

And here’s one I’ll bet you didn’t expect: drug lords. Yes, according to a recent article from, drug lords in Columbia are KILLING peasants and forcing them off their land to take possession and build oil palm orchards:

It seems growing “legitimate” crops is more lucrative than cocaine, since the Columbian army and the United States (the third most funded military effort behind Iraq and Afghanistan) have attempted to eradicate illegal coca farming and cocaine production. Well, that hasn’t actually worked, since coca production is up 27% since 1999, but never mind. Columbia produces 1.2 million liters of palm oil biofuel a day. It’s not just the rebels and drug lords stealing land, but now even the paramilitary groups formed to fight them have taken land, as well. The Columbian government can’t keep up with the thousands of complaints they get each month.
When you go to the pump to fill up your Volvo with biofuel, there is simply no good way to tell where that fuel comes from.

And let us not forget that ANY source of fuel will eventually lead to greed and price increases.

So what is a good liberal to do, short of selling the car for scrap and biking everywhere? I guess we have to choose the least of the evils: continuing to support greedy global oil conglomerates and their smog- and greenhouse-producing war-causing goo, taking corn- or soy-based food out of the mouths of starving people, gobbling up precious natural lands and supporting drug lords and paramilitary groups with oil palm groves, or simply hoofing it until algae biofuel is made?

You be the judge. For now, I guess I’ll keep supporting big oil.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going home to eat some deep fried meat bits dripping with canola oil, and I’m not going to refine it to fuel my car, either. So there.

Images modified from HERE, HERE and HERE.


Pedro Morgado said...

Bush sucks???
"We are making progress in Iraq war...”
LOL :)

Anonymous said...

why not get all the bad guys to make fuel rather than drugs???

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