Guest Editorial: The Terrible Illusion of Biodiesel

by Eric Brooks on November 26, 2007

I read with shocked and tired eyes E. “Doc” Smith’s recent glowing article about San Francisco’s biodiesel program. As an environmental activist with over two decades experience, every time I see an article like this, I lose another little bit of precious life and hope.

Smith and others like him, trumpeting the valor of biodiesel and other biofuels, need to knock it off immediately. Biodiesel does -not- produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum diesel, in fact it produces more. And the reality gets even worse than that. Biodiesel and other biofuels have suddenly become a huge booming industry which, because of the the nature of how those fuels are produced, is now destroying the planet and human civilization much faster than global warming.

This needs to be repeated… The new biofuels boom is -worse- than global warming. And unwitting starry eyed supporters of it like Willie Nelson and E. “Doc” Smith are the keystone that is helping massive multi-national corporations get the planet’s increasingly environmentally conscious public to become blindly hooked on a devastating, diseased, biofuels illusion.

Those of us on the cutting edge of fighting the climate crisis have been struggling mightily to get people to wake up from this illusion for the last decade and we are beginning to get attention; but not nearly fast enough to stop corporations like ADM, Cargill, British Petroleum (BP), Monsanto, and many others from ramping up a massive explosion in biofuels, bioplastics, and biochemicals production which is already visibly and measurably increasing our already serious global environmental collapse at an almost exponential rate.

The key problem of perception is french fry oil. When told of how some people are now running their cars on used vegetable oils that would have been thrown away, environmentally conscious people immediately get very excited by the idea. I myself long ago, got very excited about it. But then I started thinking about all of the work that the environmental movement has done to fight corporate monoculture agriculture’s devastating impact on the the planet. I started to crunch numbers in my head, and I immediately realized that biofuels could not possibly be a good thing, and that soon they would present the worst environmental disaster we have ever faced. That grim realization is now becoming a reality.

The problem is one of sheer scale. The amount of fuel that can be produced from recycling used cooking oil is only a tiny fraction of the total fuel used every day by diesel automobiles. What this means is that projects like San Francisco’s waste oils biodiesel program will quickly run out of those waste oils long before even a small part of San Francisco’s fleet of diesel cars, trucks and construction equipment is converted to biodiesel. At that point there is only one place to get the supposedly magical biodiesel; from massive corporate plantations of monocrops grown specifically to produce biodiesel.

In fact, because of European requirements for biofuel use, this is already happening. As you read this article, huge amounts of both rainforest, and food crop land, are being cleared in order to produce automobile fuel crops, most prominently, biodiesel from palm oil. The impact is already staggering and is getting worse very rapidly. And as rainforest and cropland are being destroyed, some grain food prices are skyrocketing both because food crops have been replaced by fuel crops and because many former food crops themselves are being used to produce fuel -instead- of food.

This process is devastating the global ecosystem and economies in the global South; the latter which are already staggering under the terrible weight of a global agriculture industry that is eating up lands which once produced local food, in order to grow and sell to the world market, higher priced export crops. Take one look at the world’s insane love of the automobile, and at the booming production of new automobiles for countries like China, and it is easy to see that biofuels are the -ultimate- export crop; which will form the foundation of a planet and civilization killing industry, if we allow their production to proceed any further.

And as this cropland and rainforest clearing rages forward, the process, because it is accompanied by realities like top soil disturbance (which releases CO2) and the burning of undesirable trees and plant wastes, is creating massively higher CO2 releases than even petroleum products produce. For example, biodiesel made from palm oil produces -ten- times more global warming gasses than petroleum diesel.

To complete the grim cycle, every time someone like Smith, however noble and well intentioned, writes a smarmy smiling article about how great and progressive biofuel is, the big ag companies go to Congresses and Parliaments all over the world with an even further gleefully deceived public as back-up, to get increased subsidies for this new devastating biofuels industry.

And biofuel is just the beginning. These companies are now branching out into bioplastics, biochemicals, and biopharmaceuticals. Companies like BP (with its new 500 million dollar labs at UC Berkeley) are literally making plans to manufacture everything we produce now from petroleum and natural gas, from plant crops instead. The result of such nonsense is easily predictable – a much more rapid planetary collapse which will be completed in our own lifetimes.

This insanity must be stopped immediately, and the first step is to stop painting glowing images of biofuels and start painting the accurate, Bosch like nightmare panorama, of biofuels as a disaster, which is now eating our planet alive, faster than global warming.

To start getting a sense of the nature and scale of this problem, I recommend reading a couple of articles by science writer and environmental activist George Monbiot at, http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2005/12/06/worse-than-fossil-fuel/ and http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2007/03/27/a-lethal-solution/

Eric Brooks is Co-Chair of the San Francisco Green Party Sustainability Working Group.

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