Sustainability is Key for Biodiesel Industry

By Kelly King | October 14, 2008
Everyone is talking about sustainability-sustainable energy, sustainable food, sustainable economy. It makes sense. We are living large, and if we could only sustain our current way of life, how great would that be?

Unfortunately, few true sustainability models condone our current lifestyle. They inevitably will require us to change our ways of getting around, operating our businesses, disposing of waste and even eating. If asked, most people would probably say they'd lay down their lives for their children, but would they drive a smaller car or spend a few dollars more for cleaner-burning fuel?

A speaker at the second annual Texas Biodiesel Conference & Expo, held in Austin, Texas in mid-September, defended America's right to 25 percent of the world's energy (despite the fact that we produce only 3 percent of the world's oil supply) by touting U.S. contributions in technology. No statistics were given as to how much of that technology was donated to the rest of the world, and I suspect our inventors and investors have gained at least as much as they contributed. America's position as a global leader must now involve taking the lead in living more sustainably, not defending our right to "business as usual."

I'm not an economist, but it's clear from recent headlines that our current system of buying and selling big businesses, without concern for producing real products or services, is crashing our economy. In September, comedian Craig Ferguson lambasted the Wall Street bailout and questioned what these "rich people" actually contribute. If they make something, even if they invest in businesses that make something, that is OK, he ranted, but making a profit just by moving money around? It was hilarious the way he described the $3,600-per-taxpayer bailout, but in reality, it's no laughing matter.

The spreadsheet business trend perpetuated by those who profit solely on stock sales and exit strategies is apparent in the biofuels industry. It should scare all of us that billions of dollars have been invested in the idea of a silver bullet-can you say hydrogen fuel economy?-with no resulting solution to global warming. A lot of folks got rich in the process, though.

It's time to come down to Earth and get back to what is real. In the biodiesel industry especially, it should be fairly obvious. Build a biodiesel plant, use locally available resources as much as possible, sell fuel back to your community, and contribute to the triple bottom line. You make money, the farmer makes his or her margin, and the local fuel station sells a better product and makes a profit. The community's economy benefits, carbon emissions are decreased and the system creates true energy security. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme, not spectacular or all-encompassing, not even terribly sexy, but it's real and honest.

Do we have the political will and the common sense to get back to basics and support community business successes, at least with maybe a portion of what we are giving to Wall Street for its failures?

There is still time for our industry to do the right thing. The Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance is leading the discussion on sustainability in biodiesel and should be commended for its nationwide, multi-stakeholder, inclusive process in developing principles of sustainability for our industry. In that process, SBA Executive Director Jeff Plowman tells me he's discovering consensus among national and state policymakers, environmental departments and organizations, community activists, businessmen actually running biodiesel companies, and even investing organizations that community-based production and distributed generation is the way to go.

Impressively, attendees of the SBA's Sustainable Biodiesel Stakeholders Summit held in September included the U.S. EPA, the U.S. DOE, the National Biodiesel Board, the European Biodiesel Board and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, among others. For all intents and purposes, it seems we could be headed in the right direction after all. Is it possible that the conscience the industry started with is still alive and kicking?

Kelly King is vice president of Pacific Biodiesel Inc. Reach her at [email protected] or (808) 877-3144.
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