A Call To Action

In his new book, Biodiesel America, energy expert and author Josh Tickell shatters the myth that America must remain dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Tickell shows how biodiesel could help invigorate the rural U.S. economy and create a stable domestic fuel source, while leaving our lifestyle and food supply completely untouched.
By Tom Bryan | February 01, 2006
Billed as "controversial," Josh Tickell's new book, Biodiesel America, challenges the oil industry's century-long grip on America's transportation fuels infrastructure-along with the auto industry and government policies that have sustained it-and offers a new energy roadmap to wean America from fossil fuels forever.

It's true. The book does all that-and, yes, it's the type of literary quest that might rub some folks the wrong way. However, don't presume Biodiesel America is just another anti-petroleum, half-truth-laden piece of renewable fuels propaganda that speaks only to the far left.

It's not.

To Tickell's credit, Biodiesel America is an engaging history lesson, a renewable fuels primer and biodiesel industry backgrounder all wrapped into one. It's also an authentic call to action, a perspective-building page turner, and a must-read for anyone interested in renewable fuels. The book explores the social, economic and political ramifications of biodiesel's global rise, and it allows its readers to envision a pathway to greater-if not complete-energy independence in America.
Tickell, arguably one of the nation's leading experts on biodiesel, authored From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegatable Oil as an Alternative Fuel, a bestseller written five years ago that helped jumpstart the U.S. biodiesel industry. His non-profit organization used biodiesel-fueled relief ships to deliver 20,000 meals, clothing and medical supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina and was recognized by President Bill Clinton as part of his Initiative on Global Climate Change. Tickell is also the director and creative force behind a feature-length documentary film about biodiesel, "Fields of Fuel," which is currently in the final stages of production.

Exactly how Tickell managed to write a book in between globetrotting stints with his "Fields of Fuel" crew is remarkable-the type of thing that makes regular Joe writers look bad. What the dynamic young author managed to tap out is a book that speaks not only to biodiesel advocates, but a whole generation of Americans who are growingly fed up with the nation's reliance on foreign oil and ready to do something about it. As National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe says in the book's forward, "Our personal impact on the world-our allocation of resources, our footprint on the environment, our development and use of energy and new technologies, and our level of awareness-is something we can all affect and have a moral obligation to affect. The task is ours."

Jobe's words portend Tickell's overarching message. Indeed, page by page, "rising to the challenge"-using the book as a springboard for action-progressively becomes the author's forthright ambition.

Authors of nonfiction sift through volumes of data, interviews and historical references when compiling a book. They are often forced to omit important but expendable information, and choosing what to keep in and what to toss out can be a tricky endeavor. Fortunately, Biodiesel America seems to get it right. Tickell clearly understands that to illustrate the role biodiesel might play in America's energy future, it is necessary to shed light on the nation's historical reliance on petroleum. Tickell takes the reader on a trip back in time, starting with the origins of fossil fuels in prehistoric algal life to the Western world's dependence on whale oil and the eventual "discovery" of crude oil in Pennsylvania. He explains the rise of Rockefeller's Standard Oil, and the monopoly breakup that led to the creation of what became the 20th Century's major oil companies-Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, BP/Amoco, Conoco and ARCO. "At their height, these companies would grow into a family of seven large oil companies," Tickell writes. "But like the oil industry itself, they would eventually plateau and decline."

Tickell describes how America's access to petroleum helped the Allied Nations win World War II and create a higher standard of living for the rising Baby Boomer population. It all builds up to the foreign oil dependency America now endures. "The situation came to a head in 1960 when worldwide oil production began to outpace demand, creating a buyer's market," Tickell writes in a preface to what came next-the rise of OPEC and America's peak oil production.

Tickell draws a fascinating and alarming picture of the world's oil resources, using Saudi Arabia's Ghawar oil field as a benchmark for global peak oil predictions that some experts say look ominous. All this paves the way for Tickell's introduction of a man who offered a solution to the world's oil crises a century before it occurred. That man, of course, was Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine and a one-time advocate of vegetable oil as a fuel for his motor. "Diesel foresaw his engine as a key component of the industrialization and prosperity of the agrarian communities not endowed with fossil fuel," Tickell writes. "He spoke about 'growing' fuel using the sun's energy as the main input. He was also skeptical about the long-term viability of fossil fuel itself."

In fact, Diesel was an extraordinary visionary who made several accurate predictions about energy and its impact on the world. For example, he predicted that his engine would be poorly accepted in the United States because the nation had a "lack of cultural attention to efficiency." In 1911, referring the promise of vegetable-oil-based fuels, Diesel made another telling prediction, saying, "Motive power can be produced even when our total store of solid and liquid fuel will be exhausted."

In a sense, it is Diesel's own message that Tickell carries on with Biodiesel America. One gets a sense that if Diesel himself were able to read the book, he would be awestruck and pleased with the developments of modern diesel vehicles and the gradually increasing acceptance of clean diesel technology worldwide. Tickell highlights the marvel of the diesel engine's modern day evolution-from turbochargers and common-rail injection to diesel-electric hybrids-and illustrates the excitement that vehicles like the Jeep Liberty CRD and the all-aluminum Audi A2 represent for an industry that's reliant on the future popularity of light-duty diesel vehicles. "While the United States still enjoys low fuel prices relative to Europe, U.S. diesel sales have already begun an upward trend," Tickell reports. "With prototype diesels reaching over 250 miles per gallon and hybrid diesels already in production for buses, we can be assured that the U.S. consumer diesels are on the verge of a sharp increase in market share."

Tickell is a broad thinker who understands that biodiesel alone cannot solve the world's energy challenges. So he allows the book to highlight other forms of renewable energy, and he describes the role each might play in the years ahead. "Unlike fossil-based alternative fuels, renewable fuels offer concrete options for long-term sustainable domestic energy production," he writes. "Widely misunderstood (and in most cases underestimated), these fuels represent a formidable technological and economic leap toward energy independence."

"Growing" feedstock for biodiesel, as a means for not just greater energy independence, but as an economic boost for rural America becomes a key message in Biodiesel America. Tickell dedicates a significant portion of the book to describing America's "farming crisis" and the promise biodiesl holds for agriculture. "Given the importance of agriculture to the economy, it seems prudent to look toward biodiesel and other crop-based fuels to create strong domestic markets for agricultural goods and stabilize the American farm economy," Tickell suggests. From there, he goes on to highlight six oilseed crops that have particular promise in the United States: soybean, rapeseed/canola, mustard, peanut, sunflower and corn.

Interestingly, Tickell points out a U.S. DOE report that identified 14 criteria for a new crop that could be slowly introduced into the U.S. market as a source for biodiesel production. "According to NREL, mustard meets all of the criteria," Tickell writes, before explaining that waste vegetable oils (yellow grease), animal fats and algae also hold great promise as biodiesel feedstocks.

Three distinct scenarios are presented in Biodiesel America that, according to Tickell, represent progressively hopeful roadmaps for the industry's future. The first scenario assumes that if the biodiesel industry and the petroleum industry continue to cooperate-and if government support stays strong-domestic biodiesel use will continue to ramp up to a production capacity of somewhere between 500 MMgy and 1 billion gallons per year. The second scenario assumes that, within the next decade, oil availability will decrease and land now fallow will be used to grow biodiesel feedstocks such as soybeans or canola. "In this climate, we might expect to see production of as much as 5 billion gallons of biodiesel (8 percent of our total diesel fuel usage) by 2010-an extremely optimistic but technologically feasible achievement," Tickell writes.

In the last and most ambitious scenario, Tickell acknowledges the United States could probably never muster the resources needed to displace 100 percent of its diesel fuel through conventional biodiesel feedstock production. However, he offers, if the social and economic motivators were great enough, the United States could feasibly reappropriate all of its cropland currently used to grow export crops to biodiesel feedstock production, yielding enough oilseed crops to produce 10 billion to 15 billion gallons of biodiesel per year.

Biodiesel America eventually covers the past, present and future of the U.S. biodiesel industry itself, including the challenges that it now faces. Tickell doesn't skate the tough issues like cold flow, fuel quality standards and nitrous oxide emissions, but rather offers insight into how these problems are currently being tackled.

In the end, Tickell leaves the ultimate question up the reader. Acknowledging that the concepts of "clean energy" and "alternative fuels" are often associated with sacrifice, Tickell asks, "Are we as Americans prepared for a national effort to steer the bow of our great country away from the iceberg toward which we are currently headed?" Tickell reminds the reader that there is no "silver bullet" fuel-a disclaimer often iterated by others in the biodiesel industry. He says, "We have to work with every other form of energy and energy supplier to dig ourselves out of this mess."

Tickell closes with a message of hope, saying America has not lost its ability to innovate to be great. He ultimately leaves the challenge up to the reader. "I've taken you this far," he says. "The rest of the journey is up to you."

For more information about Biodiesel America, go to www.biodieselamerica.org.

Tom Bryan is editorial director of Biodiesel Magazine. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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