NBB: Session focuses on future, indirect land use

By Ron Kotrba | January 15, 2009
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Web exclusive posted Feb. 4, 2009, at 11:33 a.m. CST

The second of three general sessions at the 2009 National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in San Francisco was as moving as it was informative. The National Biodiesel Board shared the stage with actress Darryl Hannah and singer Melissa Etheridge, who are both passionate about using renewable energy and biodiesel.

Starting the morning, NBB chairman Ed Hegland said the board's goal is to have biodiesel make up 5 percent of the national diesel fuel pool by 2015, a plan called 5X15. "And we're well on our way there," he said. The theme of the day's general session was sustainability, which Hegland called the "defining word of our time."

Hegland introduced North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven who spoke to the crowd remotely via LifeSize Technology. Hoeven is the incoming chairman of the Governor's Biofuels Coalition, which was formerly called the Governor's Ethanol Coalition; the organization changed its name to include biodiesel. Hoeven said his state only produced 4 MMgy of biodiesel before Archer Daniels Midland Co.'s 85 MMgy canola biodiesel plant in Velva, N.D., came on-line. He said that plant directly created 20 new green collared jobs.

Hoeven said the U.S. EPA needs to produce a workable program to implement the biomass-based diesel portion of the renewable fuels standard (RFS), a message with which the crowd agreed.

Hoeven extended an invitation to the NBB to hold a future NBB conference in Bismarck, N.D. The crowd chuckled at the idea of being in North Dakota in February, as opposed to the temperate locales it's historically chosen to host its conferences. However, Hoeven told the conference audience not to think of North Dakota as cold, but rather think of North Dakotans as cool.

During the conference's second general session, Don O'Connor, president of S&T Squared Consultants Inc., shared his insights regarding the indirect land use issue. Don O'Connor said there are principals that must be followed when life cycle analysis and indirect land use assessments are being developed. He said there must be relativity, transparency, and priority of scientific approach. "We will need to deviate from pure science," O'Connor said, meaning there will have to be projections, forecasts, and inevitably the utilization of social sciences to develop sound indirect land use assessments.

He said there is uncertainty in understanding exactly how to identify and quantify variables in indirect land use. The first challenge in quantifying indirect land use is how much agricultural production is there from increased land use, and how much production comes from the same land but with more productive farming practices to achieve higher yields. If one assumes more land is under cultivation some where, where that land is and what kind of land is it needs to be known, O'Connor said, adding that some models being developed to address this issue don't include idle land. And once lands are identified, the status of that land � whether it's grassland, or rainforest, etc. � should be included. Also, active farm lands have to be assessed as far as what kind of production techniques are employed on that land (e.g., till, no till, etc.). He added that coproduct assessment is necessary.

"There are lots of questions," O'Connor said. "And we have a long way to go before we reach a consensus."

O'Connor also told the crowd that those working toward developing how to calculate indirect land use should focus on the agricultural production gap that exists around the world. If soybean and rapeseed producing countries could reach production levels of countries which have the most advanced farming practices, approximately 7 billion more gallons of vegetable oil for biodiesel could be achieved without introducing one new acre into production. "And there are co-benefits of doing this," he said � when agricultural production rises, poverty decreases. "We need higher ag prices," O'Connor said.

Clearly, indirect effects of other fuels need to be addressed, he said, adding that it costs lots of money and energy to make sure oil shipping lanes are safe. "Those greenhouse gases (GHG) are never factored in," he said. O'Connor concluded his presentation by saying, "We're in the early days of calculating indirect land use."

Emily Bockian Landsburg, chief executive officer of Philadelphia Fry-o-Diesel Inc. and chair of the NBB sustainability task force, told the audience about the formalized list of principles the taskforce developed to help guide the industry on issues of sustainability, which entails climate change mitigation, human rights, food security, and respect for natural resources.

"Keep in mind when making decisions, 'What are the externalities in this market?'" Landsburg said. "No one wants to profit from hardship."

Darryl Hannah, a familiar face to regulars at the annual biodiesel event, gave a heartfelt talk to the audience about a documentary she's been working on, regarding sex slaves and the international trafficking of minors for the purpose of selling sex. Her moving speech, which wasn't read off a teleprompter but rather crumpled pieces of paper she held in her hands, went from human trafficking, to the state of the oceans, to the burning of rainforests, to the "toxic patchwork" of unsustainable agriculture, to biodiesel exports. Hannah said she knew a man who lived near a large biodiesel plant and he was excited to start using it, but couldn't find any locally because all of the fuel was being exported out of the country. She said a situation like that needs to change; however, NBB Executive Director Joe Jobe humorously cautioned that her views aren't necessarily the views of the NBB.

Melissa Etheridge also appeared during the conference's second general session, giving a spectacular performance singing, "If not now, when?" After the song, she told the audience the story about her rise to stardom, and once she made it there, she asked herself, is this it? After years of being a recording artist, her name being bought and sold from record company to record company � she jokingly said one day she found out unbeknownst to her she was the property of Seagram's Gin � she felt like there should be something more. Shortly afterwards, she felt a lump in her breast and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Etheridge said after weeks and weeks of chemotherapy, lying in her bed the whole time because light hurt, sound hurt, she was taken to a higher place of awareness and understanding; similar to a monk who meditates himself to supreme enlightenment. "I started to understand what we are," she said.

Al Gore called her one day, she said, and asked her to "check out his slide show," called "An Inconvenient Truth." She eventually wrote the song for that documentary and won an Oscar.

She then realized that in order to be healthy people, we need a healthy planet. "I asked myself, 'What can I do?'" Later, she ran into Willie Nelson, who was heavily promoting biodiesel then, and the rest is history.
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