All Your Biodiesel Are Belong To Us: The 10 Top Mistakes in Covering Renewable Fuels

August 21, 2014 |

How bad, bent, half-baked, bungled, pettifogged, misconstrued, out-of-date, misleading or agenda-laden can coverage of renewable fuels get?

This week, America’s favorite advanced biofuel, biodiesel, gets a hit job. The Digest investigates.

In 1994, there were fewer than 1,000 websites. By 2013, there were 672 million. The proliferation of content has resulted in wildly uneven coverage of renewable fuels, if you speak to exasperated “watchdogs”.

Here, we outline the 10 Top Mistakes in Covering Renewable Fuels.

1. Check facts, avoid expanding locally true conditions to universals, or mistaking upper limits of ranges for medians and averages.

Take this one from oilprice.com this week:

“Several U.S. states have implemented laws to encourage the use of biodiesel. Illinois has one of the most generous incentive programs, exempting biodiesel blends of B10 or higher from the 6.25 percent state excise tax. President Barack Obama’s home state is the leading producer and consumer of biodiesel, with B20 biodiesel now the standard diesel fuel sold at pumps.”

Sounds pretty definitive, eh? Well, no. In fact, only 7% of Illinois outlets sell B20 or higher blends, and 28% of those who do offer lower blend alternatives. Not hard to find the data, either. It’s right here.

Or, try this one, from the same article:

“Mercedes-Benz, one of five manufacturers of diesel-vehicles sold in the U.S.” Is that really so? Actually, no. There are 40 OEMs in the US. Check the data here.

2. Use current data, or make a reasonable attempt to secure the latest updates.

In a fast-changing field like renewables, the data shifts fast, and furiously. When we covered, for example, oxidative coupling of methane (OCM) technology this week in the Digest, we could have cited any number of skeptics, writing back in the 1980s or 1990s, who thought that OCM would never be economically viable — but a revolution in the techniques of catalyst design and deployment has opened up new possibilities,. As has a Moore’s Law environment in the costs in genomics.

But, you don’t always have to access the latest scientific journals to get the hard, current data. In oilprice.com this past week, we saw this:

“Using high-percentage biodiesel in your diesel vehicle could, in fact, invalidate the warranty. Mercedes-Benz, one of five manufacturers of diesel-vehicles sold in the U.S., tells potential owners, “Any damages caused by the use of such non-approved fuels will not be covered by the Mercedes-Benz Limited Warranty.”

Oops, not so, grasshopper. Try a tour of the National Biodiesel Board’s up-to-the-minute Scorecard on engine manufacturers, here. There, you see that Mercedes-Benz supports B20 in Illinois, since November 2013.

3. Avoid using facts selectively to form a biased argument.

Facts are sometimes hard to tease out, and reporters are often on tight deadlines, but there’s a clear difference between “not finding a balancing source” and “picking out one damaging factoid out of a list, to lead the reader astray”.

From the same oil price.com article:

“There is also evidence that links biodiesel to higher tailpipe emissions of nitrous and nitrogen oxides.”

Here’s the actual quote from the Penn State guide to biodiesel that was linked by the author inside the same article:

“Pollution from engine exhaust: biodiesel results in much less air pollution due to its higher oxygen content and lack of both “aromatic compounds” and sulfur. The one exception to this is nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, which tend to be slightly higher when using biodiesel. Proper tuning of the engine can minimize this problem, however.”

See how “slightly higher” is converted to “higher”? How the information on aromatics and sulfur are omitted? See how the simple remediating factor “tuning your engine” is left out, so that it looks like a problem without a solution?

4. Avoid quoting other media as a sole source, without checking the veracity or informing about the age of a given article, or as a substitute for readily available hard data.

It’s a common flaw. One outlet puts out a crazy story, then everyone else quotes it as fact, citing the other media outlet as a source.

So common, that it was satirized in the 1987 movie Broadcast News:

JANE
(broadly) Another thing I can’t stand is…when White House reporters bullshit with each other after a briefing and then one of them has a theory and the other quotes it in his story as “White House sources say”…

TOM
That actually goes on?

JANE
Yes.

Our friend at oilprice.com fell for that one, too, alas, in citing a 2012 article from The Diesel Driver: The article notes that most U.S. modern diesel cars are designed to use B5 biodiesel, and as a result, “using blends with as much as 20 percent biodiesel have caused problems ranging from check engine warnings to reduced fuel economy and outright engine failure.”

So, what’s wrong here? Well, it’s a series of allegations coupled with no evidence, hiding approvingly behind a quote that makes it seem authoritative. The underlying article could be the real deal, or complete BS.

5. Avoid straw-man comparisons.

Consider this example we just made up:

Why Space Travel May not be the Miracle Option you think…Advocates for space travel assert that traveling to the moon is free. But are the costs as low as we have been led to believe? Space travel loses ground to road travel when you take into account the cost of constructing a space vehicle, purchasing fuel, and training a crew. When the spacecraft moves forward, it actually consumes fuel as it goes, and space travel loses ground to road-based travel when the total costs are taken into account.”

Sounds pretty stupid, eh? The error of course is in setting up straw men, the faceless advocates we didn’t actually identify, who make absurd statements that their real-life equivalents would never actually make, and then the reporter proceeds to demolish these straw-men in a fit of journalistic bravado.

Could it actually happen? In the aforementioned oilprioce.com article, it did. We quote:

Why Biodiesel May Not Be The Miracle Fuel You Think…Advocates for plant-based fuels argue that they are carbon neutral because they only release existing carbon dioxide, compared to fossil fuels, which add greenhouse gases. But biodiesel loses ground when the total environmental costs of producing the fuel are taken into account. Nitrogen fertilizers applied to soils that grow crops to make biodiesel and ethanol emit nitrous oxide, a potent and long-lasting greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide is released from soil when land is plowed for planting crops.”

As you can see, in the crazy space travel example above, we simply varied the topic to illustrate the point. In fact, no one argues that biodiesel is carbon-neutral — rather, that it is carbon-reducing, after all the direct and indirect emissions are taken into account.

6. Avoid citing “business as usual” as “news”.

Consider this example we just made up:

“To be considered a movie, the production has to take place in Hollywood. Recently, EU legislators called for a switchover to making movies in Europe as well, in countries like England, France, Italy and Germany.”

Now, it may be the case that there’s a kernel of news that is somewhere buried under that absurd example of “news coverage”. It may be that EU legislators passed new incentives to bring more film production to Europe. But the story is nonsense. Making movies in the EU is business as usual.

Does it ever happen? Again we turn to oilprice.com:

“Biodiesel [is] derived from vegetable oils such as rapeseed or palm oils…EU legislators called instead for a switchover to making biofuels from alternative sources like seaweed and organic waste.”

Now, here’s the problem. While biodiesel CAN be made from vegetable oils, and usually is, it is also made from many waste feedstocks like fats, waste vegetable oil, yellow grease, choice white grease, brown grease, tallow, gutter oil, waste fish oil — as well as newer feedstocks like algae. It’s been made from fats, oils and greases for so long that the source goes by an acronym, FOG. What the EU was calling for was expanded use of waste sources, not the introduction of them. The problem is in the first assertion, which was not tied back to fact — and the use of the term “switchover” instead of “increase”.

7. Don’t wave the bloody shirt.

Try this example we just made up:

“Then, of course, there is the argument that allowing immigrants into the country takes valuable food and water away from local residents — possibly causing food and water shortages for infants here in the United States, driving up food and water prices, and possibly spreading fatal diseases that will kill children.”

Now, that’s just incendiary. We started with a commonplace fact — that immigrants consume water and food — and inflated it, without any supporting evidence, by introducing the allegation of potential shortage, and rising prices. And we’ve linked this to the most painful possible outcome we can think of — in this case, the effect on innocent babies — generally, to suppress dissent and spur activists to action.

Again, we turn to oilprice.com for evidence that this goes on in everyday journalism:

Then, of course, there is the argument that land grown for plant-based fuels uses valuable farmland and water supplies that could be used for food production — possibly causing crop shortages and driving up food prices.”

Notice how we have simply varied the metaphor. Structurally, this assertion has the same foundation as the absurd example above. We’ve alleged a link between an action and a horrible reaction without offering any proof, protecting ourselves with a “possibly” that hasn’t been substantiated, just asserted.

8. Compare apples to apples, and use comparative terms in reasonable ways.

It’s easy, in a fast-moving sector, to make slipshod comparisons by selectively picking out factors and ignoring others — we covered that in #3. But also, in using comparative terms in absurd ways, we can destroy the effectiveness of terms like “better” and “worse”.

Consider this one we just made up:

“While not taking methamphetamines with your morning coffee is beneficial to your health, the performance of people who don’t take them is actually worse, according to a fact sheet published by the Association of Ice Dealers, which says that the use of methamphetamine can increase alertness, concentration, and euphoria.”

Aside from being a fairly long and mangled sentence, it’s also crazy. Don’t buy methamphetamine! Yet, we see the same argument construction in the afore-mentioned article we’ve been highlighting.

“Further, while engines that run on biodiesel do cause less air pollution than those fueled by regular diesel, their performance is actually worse, according to a fact sheet published by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, which says biodiesel has lower fuel economy than regular diesel, and reduces engine power and torque.”

The problem here is the problem of balancing meaningful and negligible benefits. If you are using B20 biodiesel, you are losing fuel economy, torque and power. But only 0.6-1 percent. There’s almost no way you would notice it, given that engine performance varies based on traffic conditions, tire inflation, speed you are traveling at, type of road traveled, and maintenance of the vehicle. And there’s no mention of whether your cost per mile has gone up, as opposed to fuel economy. It may have gone down.

So, you have a “worse” asserted here, but in a practical sense is it fairly framed? Conversely, the benefit in CO2 reduction is not small — it can be up to 80% reduction in lifecycle CO2 emission. That, both you and planet would notice in the long run. So, were “worse” and “better” fairly compared here?

9. When citing problems, if there are easy remedies, mention them.

Consider the following that we just made up:

“Doctors with dirty hands can cause you to become ill or even cause septicemia and death, especially in the case of surgery.”

That’s why doctors throughly scrub their hands and wear gloves during surgery. It’s the easy and obvious remedy. But we didn’t mention it, which could leave you unduly alarmed. Consider the article we spotted at oilprice.com, which asserts:

“Biodiesel can also leave deposits and cause clogging, especially in cold weather.”

The Penn State fact sheet (cited by the author) said:

“Many problems have been reported by people using biodiesel fuel. Careful investigation indicates that most of these difficulties can be attributed to poor-quality biodiesel fuel and are almost identical to the problems caused by low-quality petroleum diesel…use only ASTM-certified fuels.”

In other words, lousy fuel is lousy fuel. Don’t use uncertified fuel made in a blender, unless you are prepared to accept and manage for the consequences. Regardless of how renewable it is, or isn’t.

On cold performance, the fact sheet stated:

“Similar to petroleum diesel, engines tested in cold weather typically experience significant problems with operation caused primarily by clogging of the filters and/or coking of the injectors…Have the injectors [and the injector pump] cleaned by a qualified mechanic…[and] monitor your lubrication oil regularly.”

The Penn State fact sheet added:

“Experience at Penn State’s farm has been that if tractors are stored in a warm garage (above freezing), they tend to start easily and operate well throughout the day, even when outdoor air temperatures are quite low.”

In other words, diesels of all types can have cold-weather troubles, deferred maintenance is often the culprit, and putting your car or truck in a warm garage is a simple remedy that can work.

10. Avoid rating claims that can’t be verified. Practice “if so, then what” journalism where needed.

Consider the following we just made up:

“Smith Vehicle Systems has built a successful perpetual-motion road vehicle that gets 100,000 BTUs in output for every 50,000 BTUs of input, a 2-to-1 energy-in to energy-out ratio. The SVS1 vehicle will be available commercially in six weeks, and will be priced at half the price of the lowest priced available conventional sedan.”

Here’s what we could have written:

“Smith Vehicle Systems said it has built a perpetual-motion road vehicle that gets 100,000 BTUs in output for every 50,000 BTUs of input, a 2-to-1 energy-in to energy-out ratio. The company said that its SVS1 vehicle will be available commercially in six weeks, and will be priced at half the price of the lowest priced available conventional sedan.

Joe Bloggs, spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, noted that “Unfortunately, the laws of physics apply and no vehicle could achieve the results claimed.”

However, Jane Doe of Doe Advisors said: “We’ve seen the vehicle, and while it will not be available commercially in six weeks and does not get the energy returns claimed by the company, we believe it will deliver 20% better fuel economy based on its unique fuel compression technology, and that’s good news for consumers.” Doe added that tests on fuel economy were being conducted at Independent FuelTesters Unite and the Dallas FuelBuyers Club and would be available at truthinenergyreporting.com on September 22nd.

If the company could achieve a 20% market share, that would reduce foreign oil imports by 10%, if Doe Advisors’ math holds up.”

If you’ll note, in the first instance we simply parrot the claim, and present the assertion as fact.

In the second, we bring in a dissenting voice (which is not always available by press time). More importantly, we report claims as claims, and do not endorse the claim in the reportage, and focus on an “if true, then what” statement in terms of the potential impact, if such a claim is proven true, plus some kind of milestone event where we think the claim will be proved or disproved.

How to rate an article.

Using the above criteria, deduct one point for a failure in any area (a half point if it looks minor in impact).

10. It’s a good article. Doesn’t mean it is poetic, or important, but it does rate as sound journalism.

8.5-9.5. Fair article. There are problems, but probably not ones that readers can’t navigate around, and they may be minor in impact. The writer could have been rushing to meet a deadline. Frequent scores for a single writer or outlet at this level would be a sign of real trouble.

8 or below. That’s an Agenda Rant, suitable only for Believers.

The Bottom Line

Reader, beware. Most shortcomings in articles are easy to spot and mild in impact — and no writer is perfect and no article, either. Neither is the Digest.

But you can use these 10 Top Mistakes to measure the quality of an article. Epic and multiple fails in one article might rightfully cause you to toss the article — and to weigh it as a factor next time you read the reporter’s work or access that media outlet.

But do keep in mind that new technology is full of question marks — and like a driver who can help mitigate failures by simply maintaining a vehicle properly, you have a role to play when you read:

Bring a degree of skepticism to unusual claims AND some willingness to entertain unusual ideas.

Technology is on a journey, and just because it took a million years for mankind to reach the moon, and the technology that succeeded looked nothing like the first designs, doesn’t mean it was impossible to do.

And — by the way — based on the multiple fails we saw in the biodiesel critique we analyzed — biodiesel is a far better proposition than oilprice.com asserts.

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