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Not All Biofuels Are the Same

Due to a confluence of legislative concerns about America’s energy future and an international food shortage, some leaders in Washington are rethinking America’s commitment to alternative fuels, especially biofuels. Because corn-based ethanol dominates the headlines, many now wonder whether our search for sustainable alternatives to petroleum pits fuel versus food and disrupts policies that mandate a percentage of our national fuel supplies consist of biofuels.

Biofuel critics allege three concerns when debating this subject: 1) biofuel production depletes food supplies; 2) biofuels do not actually reduce carbon emissions; and 3) some biofuels are developed from “invasive species” of plants that negatively impact local ecosystems.

It is time for all to take note: not all biofuels are the same and we can have food and fuel at the same time.

Over the past year, a multitude of companies have been conducting research on the use of alternative sources such as algae, cellulosic materials (biomass), and other non-food feedstocks for the production of various types of biofuels. While these efforts have generated positive results, the one biofuel that shows exceeding promise for long-term sustainability is biodiesel.

Biodiesel from non-food crops such as camelina, for example, preserves America’s food supply. A distant cousin to canola, camelina can prove to be a high-quality, competitively priced energy crop; while boosting farm revenues, it can benefit both the environment and national energy security. Farmers can rotate camelina on land currently growing cereal crops, or on marginal lands where traditional crops are too input-intensive or uneconomic to grow. The meal produced from crushing the camelina to create the oil can even be used in the production of high omega-3 enriched feedstock for livestock. Similarly, soybeans, the most common feedstock for biodiesel creates a meal used as animal feed. While the use of meal for animal feed gets little attention, one can see that biodiesel really creates a food-plus-fuel scenario.

Biodiesel significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. An overwhelming body of data demonstrates the carbon benefits of biodiesel. For every unit of energy it takes to make domestic biodiesel, 3.5 units are gained, giving biodiesel the highest energy balance of any commercial liquid fuel. It also has a 78 percent life-cycle carbon dioxide reduction, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy. This takes into account everything from planting the soybeans to delivering biodiesel to the pump. Furthermore, the use of biodiesel substantially reduces unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.

Another factor seldom discussed about biodiesel is its potential to be integrated into the oil and gas infrastructure system. Several test runs have demonstrated that biodiesel can be shipped through the oil and gas pipelines; Europe is already running biodiesel through some of its pipelines. While there remain a few regulatory and technical hurdles to overcome, the U.S. has the very real possibility of shipping biodiesel blends in its pipelines within a year. This form of distribution will reduce costs and dramatically reduce the number of trucks, trains, and ultimately energy and emissions required to distribute the fuel.

In 2007 alone, biodiesel's contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions equaled the removal of 700,000 passenger vehicles from America's roadways.

Finally, some non-food crops used to produce biodiesel, such as camelina, are non-invasive. In the Global Compendium of Weeds compiled by a Department of Agriculture weed risk assessor, camelina is categorized as a “casual alien” and a species that possibly sets seed, but does not persist, and without human assistance does not develop long-term sustained populations.

In the coming years, we must further increase our commitment to biodiesel fuel, which has the potential to reduce carbon and other emissions; add good-paying, green jobs to the economy; decrease dependence on foreign oil; and increase the availability of soy protein for humans and animals to eat. Biodiesel production is truly a rising tide that lifts many ships.