Really? Really, Really?

Daryl Hannah and Her Biodiesel El Camino (w/silly intro)

Someone on the LUCIPO listserv challenged my idealistic notion today of exploring biodiesel fuels by claiming it’s akin to converting to a biodiesel car and installing a solar panel on my house, which in turn, is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Nice metaphor for the planet, by the way.

Now I’m sure this line of thinking is more common than I’d like to admit. In fact, the people who hold to such dismissive claims probably excuse their own over-consumption before driving off into the sunset. I’m not excusing my own “carbon footprint,” as a friend of mine puts it when she’s measuring her activities for the day, but I am wondering: do we really need to convince people, especially those with children, that the world is not yet lost but that we really are, in actuality, destroying certain vital elements and resources by living carelessly, and moreover, by cultivating a cautious ignorance?

So without further ado, I’m going to simply cut and paste my part of the discussion from the list in a minor attempt to persuade and convince (sorry, I’m too lazy to eliminate the typos):

Okay, a nice pat rejection, JFQ … what are your sources? Who is doing the math in your sweeping equation?

Considering the fact that governments, private companies, and individuals find exploring multiple sources of biodiesel and renewable resources (wind, solar, hydro – wave and tidal – etc) as well as methods of implementation worthwhile, why forgo these alternatives, even on a smaller scale and as supplemental, with the dismissive notion that we’re on a “sinking ship”? Sounds a bit like words from the mouth of Michael Gerson himself… ‘Don’t think about it – just give up and give in.’ One way of shirking responsiblity as a citizen of the country with the most …

Such considerations are simply “rearranging the deck chairs”? Aren’t some of the benefits of trying out assorted types of fuels beneficial for other reasons, like reducing pollution? Greenhouse effects? I realize the country’s infrastructure might become a little inconvenienced and disheveled when options beyond petroleum and gas come into play, but it seems like supplementing fuel sources and exploring on a larger scale (beyond the conceptual & dismissive) is due. With a few more solar panels and hybrid cars on the road, people might start talking about their own bottom lines being cut, and well, that might just inspire … it’s at least a step beyond shrugging one’s shoulders and claiming “Oh well.” Conservation surely has practical applications too~

Certainly there are flaws in developing any plan for new energies, but aren’t there worthwhile advantages to consider?


“The environmental problems of petroleum have finally been surpassed by the strategic weakness of being dependent on a fuel that can only be purchased from tyrants. The economic strain on our country resulting from the $100-150 billion we spend every year buying oil from other nations, combined with the occasional need to use military might to protect and secure oil reserves our economy depends on just makes matters worse (and using military might for that purpose just adds to the anti-American sentiment that gives rise to terrorism). Clearly, developing alternatives to oil should be one of our nation’s highest priorities.

…a preferable scenario would include a shift to diesel-electric hybrid vehicles (preferably with the ability to be recharged and drive purely on electric power for a short range, perhaps 20-40 miles, to provide the option of zero emissions for in-city driving), and with far fewer people buying 6-8,000 pound SUVs merely to commute to work in by themselves. Those changes could drastically reduce the amount of fuel required for our automotive transportation, and are technologically feasible currently (see for example Chrysler’s Dodge Intrepid ESX3, built under Clinton’s PNGV program – a full-size diesel electric hybrid sedan that averaged 72 mpg in mixed driving 6, 7).

…The research began as a project looking into using quick-growing algae to sequester carbon in CO2 emissions from coal power plants. Noticing that some algae have very high oil content, the project shifted its focus to growing algae for another purpose – producing biodiesel. Some species of algae are ideally suited to biodiesel production due to their high oil content (some well over 50% oil), and extremely fast growth rates. From the results of the Aquatic Species Program 2, algae farms would let us supply enough biodiesel to completely replace petroleum as a transportation fuel in the US (as well as its other main use – home heating oil) – …”


“The key to kicking what President Bush calls the nation’s oil addiction could very well lie in termite guts, canvas-eating jungle bugs and other microbes genetically engineered to spew enzymes that turn waste into fuel. …

‘The process is like making grain alcohol, or brewing beer, but on a much bigger scale,’ said Nathanael Greene, an analyst with the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. ‘The technologies are out there to do this, but we need to convince the public this is real and not just a science project.’

The idea mentioned by Bush during his State of the Union speech — called “cellulosic ethanol” — skirts that problem because it makes fuel from farm waste such as straw, corn stalks and other inedible agricultural leftovers. Cellulose is the woody stuff found in branches and stems that makes plants hard.

Breaking cellulose into sugar to spin straw into ethanol has been studied for at least 50 years. But the technological hurdles and costs have been so daunting that most ethanol producers have relied on heavy government subsidies to squeeze fuel from corn. …

‘We have been at this for 25 years and we had hoped to be in commercial production by now,’ said Jeff Passmore, an executive vice president at Iogen, an ethanol-maker Iogen. ‘What the president has done is — perhaps — put some wind in the sails.’ …

Iogen opened a small, $40 million factory in 2004 to show it can produce cellulosic ethanol in commercial quantities. In the last two years, it has produced 65,000 gallons of ethanol that is blended with 85 percent gasoline to fuel about three dozen company and Canadian government vehicles. Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has invested $40 million for a 30 percent ownership stake in Iogen; Petro-Canada and the Canadian government are also investors.

Now the company is ready to build a $350 million, commercial-scale factory in Canada or Idaho Falls, Idaho, next year if it can secure financing — long one of the biggest stumbling blocks to bringing the stuff to gas pumps.

While conventional lenders are wary of investing in a new technology, the company is banking on winning a loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. Even under a best-case scenario, Passmore said Iogen won’t be producing commercial quantities until 2009.”,70208-0.html


“There are a number of benefits to using biofuels aside from guaranteeing the longevity of the supply system. First, biofuels are produced domestically, and the feedstocks for them are grown domestically. This helps reduce our country’s trade deficit and creates jobs in our country, both of which are good for our economy. Our agricultural community especially stands to benefit, since biofuels are made from crops and agricultural residues, providing options for new valuable crops and new uses for existing crops and residues.

Producing our fuels domestically also improves our energy security; we become less dependent on the strategic, political, and economic whims of other countries. And with continued Middle East turmoil it is important to remember how vulnerable we are and how heavy our reliance is on imported oil. Key among the reasons for rising oil imports is the limited domestic resource base of crude oil.

Finally, producing and using biofuels is much better for the environment than burning fossil fuels. Biofuels produce fewer harmful emissions during production and combustion and they reduce life cycle carbon dioxide to the atmosphere 78%, which is very important for reducing the build up of greenhouse gases.”

***In response to naysayers of biodeisel, SWITCHGRASS is now being considered as an alternative to SOY and RAPESEED crops:

“Switchgrass is a perennial C4 grass propagated by seed that can be established at low cost and risk and requires very low inputs while giving high biomass yields even on marginal soils. Since the early 1990s the crop has been developed as a model herbaceous energy crop for ethanol and electricity production in the USA and in Canada and it is also being considered as a paper pulp production feedstock. …

But what makes switchgrass bad for barefoot lawns makes it ideal for energy crops: It grows fast, capturing lots of solar energy and turning it into lots of chemical energy— cellulose—that can be liquified, gasified, or burned directly. It also reaches deep into the soil for water, and uses the water it finds very efficiently. And because it spent millions of years evolving to thrive in climates and growing conditions spanning much of the nation, switchgrass is remarkably adaptable.

Many farmers already grow switchgrass, either as forage for livestock or as a ground cover, to control erosion. Cultivating switchgrass as an energy crop instead would require only minor changes in how it’s managed and when it’s harvested. Switchgrass can be cut and baled with conventional mowers and balers. And it’s a hardy, adaptable perennial, so once it’s established in a field, it can be harvested as a cash crop, either annually or semiannually, for 10 years or more before replanting is needed. And because it has multiple uses—as an ethanol feedstock, as forage, as ground cover—a farmer who plants switchgrass can be confident knowing that a switchgrass crop will be put to good use.

Annual cultivation of many agricultural crops depletes the soil’s organic matter, steadily reducing fertility. But switchgrass adds organic matter—the plants extend nearly as far below ground as above. And with its network of stems and roots, switchgrass holds onto soil even in winter to prevent erosion.”

*** AGAIN, WHY?:

“1. It provides a market for excess production of vegetable oils and animal fats. There is increasing demand around the world for soybean meal to provide the protein for human and animal consumption. If new markets are not found for the soybean oil, then the price will be low and farmers will have even more difficulty producing a profit. The animal by-products industry also has a problem with more supply than the current market can absorb. This is compounded by the potential for even greater restrictions on the use of animal fats in animal feeds because of concerns about the spread of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy – Mad Cow Disease) .

2. It decreases the country’s dependence on imported petroleum. Obviously, this reason should not be overemphasized since the percentage of the country’s fuel supply that can be replaced with biodiesel will be small. However, petroleum markets tend to be sensitive to small fluctuations in supply so an additional source of fuel can have a surprising impact on keeping fuel prices stable.

3. Biodiesel is renewable and contributes less to global warming than fossil fuels due to its closed carbon cycle. Because the primary feedstock for biodiesel is a biologically-based oil or fat, which can be grown season after season, biodiesel is renewable. And, since most of the carbon in the fuel was originally removed from the air by plants, there is very little net increase in carbon dioxide levels. However, some fossil carbon is contained in the methanol used to make methyl esters, and some fossil fuel is used during the production process. A life cycle study on biodiesl use in an urban bus conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory [1] found that CO 2 emissions were reduced by 79% for pure biodiesel compared with petroleum diesel fuel. Again, this reason should not be overemphasized because biodiesel does not have the potential to make a major impact on the total carbon dioxide production.

4. The exhaust emissions from biodiesel are lower than with regular diesel fuel. Biodiesel provides substantial reductions in carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons, and particulate emissions from diesel engines. While the carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons from diesels are already very low compared with gasoline engines, biodiesel reduces them further. Particulate emissions, especially the black soot portion, are greatly reduced with biodiesel. Unfortunately, most emissions tests have shown a slight increase in oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions with biodiesel. This increase in NOx can be eliminated with a small adjustment to the engine’s injection timing while still retaining a particulate decrease.

5. Biodiesel has excellent lubricating properties. Even when added to regular diesel fuel in an amount equal to 1-2%, it can convert fuel with poor lubricating properties, such as modern ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, into an acceptable fuel.

Reference: Sheehan, J., V. Camobreco, J. Duffield, M. Graboski, and H. Shapouri, Life Cycle Inventory of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel for Use in an Urban Bus,” Report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fuels Development and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Energy, NREL/SR-580-24089, May 1998. ”

7 Responses to “Really? Really, Really?”

  1. shanna Says:
    September 16th, 2006 at 2:25 pm ei haven’t read the whole thread over there, but isn’t the argument about “it takes more energy to convert biomass into biodiesel” etc. forgetting that it takes an awful lot of energy to kill all those people sitting on the petrol reserves in the middle east? pollution, greenhouse gases, co2, etc. aside, one benefit to converting to biodiesel and renewable energy and otherwise reducing our dependence on petroleum would be LESS PROVOCATION FOR KILLING.even if the switching over is more expensive, and even if it’s inconvenient, i’m okay with that. i don’t like WAR for OIL. it sucks.

    hey, did you know you can buy wind power here in NYC. check the con ed website here. i haven’t done it yet, since i’m about to move, but will when i do. also, i have given up plastic bottles. these things are not BIG but they are SOMETHING which is better than NOTHING.

  2. Amy King Says:
    September 16th, 2006 at 4:55 pm eExactly – an excellent point, Shanna. It’s as though there’s a switch that allows folks to ignore the fact that we’re in Iraq because they’ve got oil we covet — folks who don’t want to consider how their actions impact the environment they personally inhabit find a remove from the war by negating any gestures toward eco-consciousness and turning these considerations into a series of clichés about treehuggers and greenies.If we begin, as a country, to think about our impact on the environment and how much oil we use, well then it becomes impossible to ignore that we’re at war for this very reason … and we don’t want to admit that, not even to ourselves — that our “comfortable” lifestyles need to be fulfilled by certain means, even if those means are horrifying.

    Another “small” but good thing in addition to weening cars off of petrol is the change in home heating. Several companies are now selling alternative/mixed fuels for heating.

    Ultimately, appealing to people’s wallets, instead of the solo moral method (Gore’s position in “An Inconvenient Truth”), I suppose, is going to be the route of selling folks on switching over or just supplementing our daily consumption of petrol. Any move, even baby steps at this point, is better than sizing up the next country with oil …

  3. shanna Says:
    September 17th, 2006 at 2:51 am eyeah, and i have a friend who is an environmental specialist who is noticing just that trend. (she currently coordinates recycling and energy policy for a county in new jersey.) she says companies are starting to realize that their consumer bases are “turned on” by envirnonmental conciousness as part of the corporate culture, so they are hiring away eco peeps to help them fall in line. as much as i’d like to dismiss this as a PR move (and indeed, it is, mostly), those eco peeps WILL shape the companies up somewhat. they are beginning to realize–at the level of the bottom line (the only line that matters to them)–that we do care and that we’ll spend more if we can feel better about it.(so, yeah, money. whaddaya gonna do?)


  4. john sakkis Says:
    September 17th, 2006 at 7:04 pm ean el camino?! with the matte black paint job! she’s so rock and roll…
  5. Mia Says:
    September 19th, 2006 at 3:16 am eAll I know is that out here, there are a lot of people who claim to be environmentalist, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who is actually using public transportation. And screw biofuels. I’m not interested in the price of food going up because it could be more profitable to grow corn for fuel. We have the technology to create vehicles that emit olny water vapor. And Honda has just figured out how to make them go fast. Those cars will be a real option for buyers in the EU in 200.
  6. Dan Coffey Says:
    September 25th, 2006 at 5:56 pm eNow that we know there’s oil in Canada, we just need to find some WMDs up there and we’ll be set for probably another half-century.
  7. belledame222 Says:
    September 28th, 2006 at 12:14 am e> haven’t read the whole thread over there, but isn’t the argument about “it takes more energy to convert biomass into biodiesel” etc. forgetting that it takes an awful lot of energy to kill all those people sitting on the petrol reserves in the middle east?>Yup.

    I think that there are a number of factors at work in defenses like that; and that “want to preserve status quo/profit” or what have you is only the surface. I think change is scary and hope is scarier, as it raised the specter of ambivalence, which scares a lot of if not all people more than anything.

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AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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