The People’s Fuel

August 31, 2017 |

Biodiesel is the people’s advanced biofuel, but it is not always the Establishment’s darling.

Whether it is cleaner air, more lubricity, more advanced domestic manufacturing and jobs, higher property values driving higher revenues for states and schools, or a secondary market for growers to prevent another Farm Aid era of commodity busts — biodiesel delivers benefits across the board, and gets it done at scale, affordably, and for the long haul. You can count on it, it never advantages a nefarious power, it never leaves you behind.

And that’s why it’s always been the people’s fuel. From pencil-wielding fleet managers to dedicated biodiesel co-op members, there’s been real love for biodiesel. Even the french-fry aroma.

But it’s never been the princess of policy circles, where officials jam the growth, undercount the benefits, and miss the populist appeal.

The NBB’s Minutemen and the RVO

Take for example the question of the next round of diesel fuel standards — by law these days, diesel in the US must contain a percentage of renewable fuel and EPA defines the specifics. This year, EPA proposes that in 2019 we use 20% less biomass-based diesel than the industry produced in 2016. Despite falling fuel prices, rising mileage, rising biomass-based diesel capacity and even better technology.

The National Biodiesel Board says it is “extremely concerned with the proposed rule’s unprecedented cut,” which is their Missouri-nice way of putting it.

Doug Whitehead, chief operating officer at the National Biodiesel Board, added that “these proposals run counter to Congress’s objectives to promote the growth of biofuels that provide American jobs, reduce emissions and enhance U.S. energy security. EPA cannot enact its own policy when Congress has spoken, so we look forward to working with the EPA on addressing these concerns”.

It’s not exactly Charlton Heston challenging the anti-gun lobby to take his shotgun from “my cold, dead hands” — but that’s biodiesel for you. It’s the friendly fuel, made by the friendly folks. “You’d like to throw energy security into The Black Hole of Calcutta? Why thank you, sir, would you like fries with that order?”

Lord knows the National Biodiesel Board is manning the ramparts. In their testimony earlier this summer, they presented evidence that the US could support 5.25 billion gallons of advanced biofuels and 2.75 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel.

In their official comments to the EPA, they’ve backed that down to 4.75 billion and 2.5 billion, respectively. It’s an olive branch to the EPA, presumably — a signal that government and industry should work together to make the diesel fuel standard right for America and for Americans. Those latest numbers — consider that a baseline floor from the discussion, from industry’s POV.

But don’t hold your breath that the EPA will embrace the people’s fuel or the people’s numbers. You can expect NBB’s notes to be well-researched, thoughtfully put, unassailably logical, and politely ignored.

Underestimating the value

Perhaps a new academic paper published in Biotechnology for Biofuels makes the point. Turns out, we’ve been undercounting the benefits. Updated modeling from Purdue University confirms that the carbon advantage of using biodiesel has been underestimated by 10 percent.

The problem? It comes back to the never-ending subject of indirect land use change. Every industry has its own equivalent of a root canal, and advanced bioeconomy has ILUC. So, you have to keep reading, but your annoyance is acknowledged in advance.

The theory goes that, as biodiesel usage grows, more land is cleared for cropland somewhere to meet the increased global demand for fuel and food. And that leads to emissions, somewhere, somehow. Problem is, it’s complex to model yield intensification. It can come from better seed, better grower practice, more water, double-cropping, intercropping, better crop protection. As prices rise, so do grower tools for intensifying yields. So, does growth result in more land being used, or land being used more efficiently.

The models have never been all that accurate when you backtest them on hard data, but they’ve been punishing to renewable fuels, all the same. The indirect land use effect, for example, reduces greenhouse gas emissions benefit of biodiesel from 85 percent to just over 50 percent. This, according to modeling from EPA in 2010 and the California Air Resources Board in 2014.

Now, Purdue University has weighed in. The research team led by Wally Tyner writes,

“The results show that all the changes in the global economy and agricultural sectors cause biofuels induced land use changes and associated emissions can be quite different using the 2011 database versus 2004. The results also demonstrate the importance of including land intensification in the analysis. The previous versions of GTAP and other similar models assumed that changes in harvested area equal changes in cropland area. However, FAO data demonstrate that it is not correct for several important world regions. The model now includes land intensification, and the resulting land use changes and emission values are lower as would be expected.”

NBB’s sustainability guru Don Scott was ebullient.

“Biodiesel is already recognized as the commercial biofuel with the lowest net GHG emissions. The power in these new findings is that science is improving.  The prediction of economic impacts and land use change is becoming more reliable.  More data has been analyzed today than has ever been available in the past.  The data shows that farmers all around the world are becoming more efficient.  We are feeding better food to more people, and we are doing it using less land,” Scott said. 

“This is great news, because agriculture is our most powerful tool to turn solar energy and carbon dioxide into things like food and biodiesel.  This is a powerful formula, because sunshine is free, and farming turns the liability of excess carbon dioxide into an asset when we use it to support American jobs. Biodiesel is a powerful driver to create jobs and help our environment. As these models look more and more like the real world, biodiesel’s extensive real-world benefits come into focus.”

The Bottom Line

Ever play the license game with a small child on a long road trip? 50 states, kids, find a plate for every state. Well, if you’re anywhere near Washington DC these days, it’s getting a lot easier to check Oklahoma off the list, especially in the vicinity of the Environmental Protection Agency.

So. we’re not enthused that biodiesel is going to make a lot of headway on the proposed diesel fuel standard and the resulting volumes for biomass-based diesel. Hope springs eternal.

What’s the remedy? Policy papers, research — they help. Fly-ins featuring growers help. But it’s a year of Debate-by-Twitter and raw political muscle of the combative Steve Bannon type — and election impact is likely to weigh a lot more than science impact this year. It’s time for the Friendly fuel to find what excites the Trump base when it comes to diesel-side fuels.

A  GOP friend writes this: “We need more geographic and product balance in our liquid fuels future. The country needs biofuels as an insurance policy”.

With fossil transport fuels, it’s true, all the eggs are in just one basket with the price leverage sitting at the foot of a spigot controlled by — well, maybe Russia’s ambition, maybe China’s demand, maybe OPEC’s need — but certainly not in Washington DC. And supply more than occasionally at the mercy of the weather. Maybe a bit of home-grown, Minuteman, affordable, effective, friendly insurance is a really good idea.

Like a good neighbor, biodiesel is there.

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