Feeling the effects of the indirect land use debacle

By Nicholas Zeman | July 15, 2009
The West Coast has led the way in implementing the use of soy biodiesel at both private and public levels, but the EPA's report on indirect land use change-and soy biodiesel's involvement in that scenario-is causing certain cities to reevaluate their usage of the renewable fuel. Specifically, Seattle and Berkeley, Calif., public works departments are suspending their purchases of soy biodiesel and looking for "greener" alternatives.

Brenda Bauer, director of Seattle's Fleets and Facilities Department, said that based on the EPA report, they made a decision to look for other types of biodiesel, instead of the variety from virgin oils. "Not all fuels are the same," Bauer told Biodiesel Magazine, adding that the city is now looking for biodiesel made from yellow greases or other waste streams. That way, her department and the city receives greater environmental benefits, according to published EPA information.

Recently, General Biodiesel Inc. purchased Imperium Renewables Inc.'s Seattle plant. General Biodiesel is converting the facility to produce biodiesel from waste oils such as recycled cooking oil and animal fats, which the company collects from restaurants and grocery stores around the region. "We are working with General Biodiesel, which makes fuel from waste grease, so we're still using biodiesel," Bauer said. "But this is a waste product that might otherwise go to a landfill, and it gets better greenhouse gas reductions than soy biodiesel when it's used to make fuel."

There has been a wide variety of conflicting opinions regarding Washington's state and municipal programs that support biodiesel, and Seattle's decision to suspend its purchases of certain types of renewable fuel. John Plaza, CEO of Imperium Renewables recently wrote an editorial for the Seattle Times that criticized wavering commitments to biodiesel among the state's administration. "Unfortunately, in the past 18 months, the state has sent mixed messages and pushed inconsistent policies regarding biofuels," Plaza said. "This has had a chilling effect on investors, biofuel producers and farmers who are key to producing feedstocks needed for fuel.

Three days after Plaza's statement appeared, the Times published a piece by Duff Badgley, Washington's 2008 gubernatorial candidate of the Green Party. "The state must rescind its myriad laws requiring the public and private use of biofuels-the only biofuels available for mass consumption," Badgley said. "Hoping and waiting for so-called 'second generation' biofuels is denying the global devastation that biofuels are wreaking now."

The quasi-debate that is playing out in the state of Washington results from EPA's influential assertions regarding indirect land use-that biofuels demand for feedstuffs is causing global changes in agriculture including the deforestation of the Amazon and Asian tropical regions-which is fast turning into a debacle.

Berkeley has also suspended the use of soy biodiesel in its fleets while the city evaluates the impact of the fuel. This move follows a recommendation made by the Community Environmental Advisory Commission in May that the city manager discontinue the use of B20 and revert to petroleum diesel. "The former evaluations that showed biodiesel producing up to 80 percent less GHGs are now only considered accurate if no arable land is required in the production of the fuel," CEAC stated in its recommendation. Since no new arable land is being introduced in Europe or North America, we must assume that biofuel agriculture must be grown somewhere else."

CEAC will reconsider this situation in September after more research and evaluations have been conducted. Meantime, its stance is that "biofuels, such as ethanol and virgin soy-based biodiesel are scientifically proven to contribute more to global warming than petroleum based gasoline by doubling greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years."
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