‘Biodiesel’ is looking worse and worse
An example of a long-lived and wildly successful marketing scheme is the station wagon with oversize tires and a four-wheel drive transmission, repackaged as the Sport Utility Vehicle. The only significant difference between these and the cars our parents drove is the mental image planted in our heads by marketing. And the real beauty is that you get to pick from two images:
- People envy you for having enough disposable income and leisure time to use your car for sport, skiing in the mountains or driving down the middle of your favorite trout stream to do a little fly-fishing.
- People envy you for owning such a utilitarian vehicle, one befitting a rugged individualist who hauls tools and supplies to job sites (the Marlboro Man).
The glue that binds all this together, of course, is status-seeking behavior — a genetic propensity for most social primates.
Another wildly successful recent marketing scheme is the word biodiesel. Bio is the Greek root for life: biosphere, biodiversity, and biology. Let’s see how well this image of preserving life holds up against the reality of biodiesel.
You take a habitat filled with biodiversity, a forest (temperate/tropical) or grassland (Cerrado/Conservation Reserve), bulldoze and burn all vegetation, plow up the soil, sterilize it with herbicides and insecticides, and finally plant a single genetically modified crop on it. You now have a large flat expanse of land devoid of all life save a single species — as I have said before, a mall parking lot plus one. The process used to produce the crop is by any definition industrial.
Doing this to produce food is one thing; doing it to feed our cars borders on immoral.
A new subculture has recently sprung up based around biodiesel use. It is a badge of honor (a status symbol) to own a car that runs on biodiesel in this circle, just as a Prius is in other circles. Devotees believe they are sticking it to the man (oil companies). Never mind that oil companies (or companies that look very much like them) will eventually own all biofuel production. As with the SUV, it is based on false marketing from industry televangelists, propagated by believers devoid of critical thought.
Time to cut through the marketing crap and give this fuel a more accurate label: Industrial agrodiesel. We need a new bumper sticker: “Biodiesel: feeding the planet to our cars.” And no, I’m not a shill for the bumper sticker oligarchy.
I realize that such a sticker would do a disservice to those dedicated environmentalists using recycled grease, and I apologize for any collateral damage. The “mom and pop locally produced” image is false for 98% of all biodiesel used in the States. The stock comes from thousands of miles away. Unless you are one of the environmentalists out there using recycled grease, you are an industrial agrodiesel poseur. The “smells like french fries or popcorn” mantra is also a load started by the biodiesel industry.
I walked out of a store last night into a cloud of smoke and looked around for the biodiesel sticker. It was on a white van. Earlier in the day I was heading up Stone Way on my hybrid bike following a biodiesel stickered pickup truck. Because my bike was able to keep up with it in traffic, it felt like I had a hose hooked from his tail pipe to my face. I just hope he appreciates the fact that the moist pink lungs of bikers are helping to filter his soot out of the air. The soot from incinerated biomass irritates my eyes and lungs just like wood smoke does. Personally, I’m tired of riding my bike in the wake of these smokers driven by people with their hearts (but not their heads) in the right place.
As data continues to roll in, this fuel (made primarily from soybeans here in the States) has lost all but one of its purported advantages. It produces less air pollution than regular diesel (but not gasoline) for all but two pollutants. However, this one advantage is dwarfed by disadvantages. The last and biggest to fall was its carbon neutrality. This fuel has gone from being touted as carbon neutral, to adding 22 pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere for every 100 pounds released at the tail pipe (78%, according to the Department of Agriculture report with the picture of a bus with a soybean motif painted on it), to adding 59 pounds of CO2 for every 100 pounds released (41% if you accept the highly biodiesel-positive study from the University of Minnesota), and finally to being far worse than fossil fuels in the latest peer reviewed study, found in Science.