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Biofuel Byproduct Not So Eco-Friendly:

An interesting story about pollution from a biodiesel plant.

After residents of the Riverbend Farms subdivision noticed that an oily, fetid substance had begun fouling the Black Warrior River, which runs through their backyards, Mark Storey, a retired petroleum plant worker, hopped into his boat to follow it upstream to its source.

It turned out to be an old chemical factory that had been converted into Alabama's first biodiesel plant, a refinery that intended to turn soybean oil into earth-friendly fuel.

"I'm all for the plant," Mr. Storey said. "But I was really amazed that a plant like that would produce anything that could get into the river without taking the necessary precautions."

But the oily sheen on the water returned again and again, and a laboratory analysis of a sample taken in March 2007 revealed that the ribbon of oil and grease being released by the plant — it resembled Italian salad dressing — was 450 times higher than permit levels typically allow, and that it had drifted at least two miles downstream.

The spills, at the Alabama Biodiesel Corporation plant outside this city about 17 miles from Tuscaloosa, are similar to others that have come from biofuel plants in the Midwest. The discharges, which can be hazardous to birds and fish, have many people scratching their heads over the seeming incongruity of pollution from an industry that sells products with the promise of blue skies and clear streams.

Erick:
I really wonder if the biofuel craze is going to end up being one of the worst environmental disasters of this century. Ethanol has mostly been exposed as a giant scam (not that this has slowed down its proponents) that may actually increase fuel requirements (because corn ethanol is inefficient and actually takes more energy to grow and process than it provides) in addition to raising world food prices and probably leading to death and malnutrition throughout the developing world.

Now we might get some good old fashioned "pouring sludge into lakes and rivers" style pollution from biofuels we've really got everything. Bad economics and higher costs, more C02, more poisons, death and starvation.

*In case "century" seems like to long of a time period for the worst disaster to be so minor, remember, this century just started, and environmental disasters should be getting less common and less severe.
3.11.2008 12:00pm
Curt Fischer:

I really wonder if the biofuel craze is going to end up being one of the worst environmental disasters of this century. Ethanol [blah blah blah]


Erick's comment seems to me a prime example of a knee-jerk reactionary response to the word "biofuel".

First, ethanol has not been exposed as a "giant scam". Repeated studies have shown that corn-based ethanol production offers only marginal greenhouse gas reduction and does indeed suffer from a marginal net energy balance. I'm not sure how that makes it a "giant scam". For example, one credible argument its supporters make is that even if its net energy ratio is one, it still represents a way to produce transportation fuels from coal, natural gas, and sunlight. As such it could reduce US dependence on foreign oil. I myself am not a corn ethanol supporter, because I believe this benefit is more than offset by the many disadvantages of corn ethanol.

Second, and more importantly, this post is about biodiesel. Not ethanol. Biodiesel produced from waste oils enjoys a highly positive net energy balance and can certainly be produced in a way that makes a lot of environmental sense. What's unfortunate is that the operators of this Alabama plant apparently chose to flout emissions standards and to produce biodiesel in an unclean, unsafe way. They should be held responsible for any and all emissions violations that they perpetrate.

But how you get from a single plant's emissions violation to impugning the entire concept of "biofuels" is certainly not obvious to me.
3.11.2008 12:45pm
Jack S. (mail) (www):
two separate issues that are being confused here

1. Biofuels, when produced properly and whether they are truly renewable and beneficial to the environment.

2. Irresponsible plant operators

This case falls in 2 and the owners and the plant manager should be fined accordingly as in any other industry. The National Biodiesel Board could also step in and sanction them by refusing certification, etc.
3.11.2008 12:55pm
FWB (mail):
Biofuels do not produce less "pollution", if one considers the standard products of combustion as pollution, than "fossil" fuels. The products still include carbon dioxide, water (the real greenhouse gas), and various oxides of nitrogen. Biofuels are generally lower in SOx production.

The most current research indicates that biofuels made from corn or other crops do not have a zero carbon footprint because of the energy required to produce fertilizers and the crop.

Biofuels such as ethanol, have less energy per gallon than gasoline and much, much less than diesel. Thus the consumer will use an increased number of gallons of fuel to obtain the same result, i.e. miles traveled.

The one actual benefit of biofuels is lowered dependency on "fossil" fuels. The greatest negative of biofuels is the economic effect. Prices for food materials, corn, etc, may skyrocket due to competition among sectors for the products. This has a major impact on the poor who use the materials for food.

When some thing is touted as a panacea, your BS indicator ought to go off.
3.11.2008 12:56pm
Erick:


First, ethanol has not been exposed as a "giant scam". Repeated studies have shown that corn-based ethanol production offers only marginal greenhouse gas reduction and does indeed suffer from a marginal net energy balance.

How is it not a scam? If offers at best a minor fuel savings, and possibly a net energy loss. For this, we pay billions and billions of dollars, much of which lines the pockets of agriculture corporations that already receive $60 billion per year in subsidies.

Lots of money for no benefit coerced through deceptive and inaccurate claims seems like the very definition of a scam.


But how you get from a single plant's emissions violation to impugning the entire concept of "biofuels" is certainly not obvious to me.

I may gone a bit far, but I'm not that far off. I stand by my statement that ethanol is nothing but a scam. At best it might be a gimmick. Ethanol is the most prevalant biofuel, and what many politicians and "environmentalists" are touting as an answer to high prices, pollution, and dependence on foreign oil (ignoring any conflicts between these various goals). Maybe other things will end up with more promise, but maybe we'll end up finding out that these others aren't so great either, though maybe for different reasons.. Or maybe they'll get left by the wayside as everyone jumps on the ethanol bandwagon. This country and its environmentalist movement haven't exactly been rational about things with the name "diesel" in them.
3.11.2008 1:09pm
Orielbean (mail):
What FWB, Erick, and other detractors have failed to note: the carbon sequestration from plant-based fuels is one positive benefit of biofuel vs fossil fuel.

The fossil fuel carbon is not currently existing as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - it's underground and then added to the total CO2 available in the atmosphere after being burned, perhaps contributing to global warming. The corn and soy products are grown and consume CO2 as they are produced.

That's not to say that there's any other great benefits to the process, but at the very least - if you aren't burning other fossil fuels to make the biofuel, then you aren't adding more carbon to the atmosphere, which is a positive.

You call it a gimmick, but it is one such solution to reducing carbon gas emissions. And don't start hopping on the great unwashed enviro movement - GM has already started with the flex-fuel and ethanol fueled engines, so that will help future research and development for more palatable solutions as fossil oil crests the 150 and 200 per barrel mark.
3.11.2008 1:18pm
Sigivald (mail):
Curt: He's speaking of ethanol in the US, which is corn ethanol; that's the only ethanol program the Government is pushing, and the only one of any size and popularity.

Take literally, yes, he's overstating. But in context, he's absolutely right.

Further, biodiesel "produced from waste oils" is staggeringly marginal. There isn't enough waste oil to fill a fraction of a percent of US energy needs.

I remember arguing with a pie-in-the-sky biodiesel proponent who thought the country would be oil-free if "we'd just use hemp to make biodiesel". Unfortunately, running the numbers for oil production per acre from biodiesel proponents revealed that we'd have to plant something like 2-2.5 times as much land as the US possesses (assuming it was all fertile!) to do so.

Turning WVO into biodiesel (or burning it directly) is best treated, metaphorically, as a drop in a bucket. Literally, so to speak, that's about the level of availability WVO has compared to demand.

If we really want to try biofuel, it'll probably take huge-scale oceanic algae farming, and of course the hippies will scream bloody murder about that.
3.11.2008 1:41pm
Erick:

What FWB, Erick, and other detractors have failed to note: the carbon sequestration from plant-based fuels is one positive benefit of biofuel vs fossil fuel.

The fossil fuel carbon is not currently existing as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - it's underground and then added to the total CO2 available in the atmosphere after being burned, perhaps contributing to global warming. The corn and soy products are grown and consume CO2 as they are produced.


The problem is that this benefit my not exist, or may be much smaller than its supposed to be. Yeah, they consume CO2 as they are produced, and then when they're burned it goes into the atmosphere. If you have a net energy gain with ethanol then you're saving CO2 you would have dug up from underground, but if there's an energy loss, than you might actually be burning more fossil fuels to get that. You have to burn fossil fuels to create ethanol, which is what people seem to conveniently forget when talking about it.

And if the net energy gain is very small, its still a bad deal. There are better ways to reduce carbon emissions.
3.11.2008 1:45pm
Don Miller (mail) (www):
And then there is the whole BioDiesel uses waste oil misconception.

Some small refineries and small producers (hippy down the block) make biodiesel out of waste oil.

The major Biodiesel plants in my area all use raw new soy oil to produce biodiesel. One operator told me that cleaning waste oil makes the process too expensive
3.11.2008 2:06pm
Adam J:
For cripes sake Erick, why are you ranting on and on about ethanol... the post is about biodiesel, not ethanol. Stay on topic.
3.11.2008 2:29pm
Oren:
So, let me get this straight, if a biodiesel plant leaks, it's somehow news but whenever some random lumbermill/whatever leaks, it's not?

Leaks bad, enforcement good, next.
3.11.2008 2:36pm
Erick:

For cripes sake Erick, why are you ranting on and on about ethanol... the post is about biodiesel, not ethanol. Stay on topic

Because they're related? Because they're both attempts to accomplish the same thing? Because they're often grouped together in discussions?

Ethanol has more in common with biodiesel than complaining about people going off topic does.
3.11.2008 2:46pm
Curt Fischer:

Sigivald said: He's speaking of ethanol in the US, which is corn ethanol; that's the only ethanol program the Government is pushing, and the only one of any size and popularity.


You are obviously wrong about this. See here for an announcement of DoE-funded loan guarantees for cellulosic ethanol plans. See here for the web page of the chief biomass-related research office at the DoE. Most of the research it describes is related to cellulosic ethanol. See here for a study jointly sponsored by the DoE examining the US resource base for the production of biofuels from non-food biomass. If you search on Google News for "cellulosic", you will see that articles referencing the DoE and its funding of cellulosic ethanol research and development come up in the first page. Cellulosic ethanol is a) not corn ethanol, b) being actively researched and developed with federal money, and c) enjoys by all estimates a considerably more favorible net energy balance than corn ethanol. It's very important to distinguish cellulosic ethanol from corn ethanol for these reasons.


Sigivald also said: Further, biodiesel "produced from waste oils" is staggeringly marginal. There isn't enough waste oil to fill a fraction of a percent of US energy needs.


Great point, but how is it relevant? Who cares if there's a lot of it or not? Any untapped waste oil resources out can be (often profitably) converted into low-carbon fuels that reduce our petroleum consumption. I agree WVO biodiesel won't solve our energy problem here in the US by itself, but so what? Regardless of how many biodiesel plants there are, they all need to be run responsibly and obey emissions regulations. I agree with Jack S. that two very different things are being conflated here.
3.11.2008 2:48pm
Erick:
And I hardly ranted on and on. I made a post with a few sentences about ethanol, and then Curt posted a much longer rant about how I was wrong about everything I said about Ethanol and I replied to that.
3.11.2008 2:51pm
Mac (mail):
The problem is that you now have big money and big votes in the farm states who want corn based ethanol. It may be very difficult, assuming science can even someday come up with a viable alternative, to move to it now that you have so many with a huge stake in corn.

It is ridiculous to burn our food. It is, in my opinion, immoral to burn the food that is needed to feed the world, especially the worlds poor who are hugely dependent on a plentiful and cheap supply of corn. For so little, if any, benefit we are committing a grave injustice to the world. It makes no sense to cause starvation now so we can maybe or maybe not prevent starvation from AGW if AGW is real and if it even has any negative consequences which is still to be determined.

Are you aware that the global temperature dropped by 1 degree last year? Let's see, a century to gain one degree and one year to drop by a degree.
CO2 is still increasing, so how is it that world temperature dropped? Maybe, AGW is soon going to be rellagated to the dust bin of history where it probably belongs.
However, yeah it would be nice to get off foreign oil. We could drill for our own deposits, safely and sanely instead of ruining the environment of the third world (see Nigeria for one). And, we could and should intelligently research biofuels. That said soy beans and corn are food. Let's look somewhere else before the powers that be are too entrenched to be changed no matter how little benefit we get from corn and soy beans.
3.11.2008 4:40pm
Mac (mail):


Here is a link, I hope, to a National Geographic article on oil in Nigeria. I don't really believe my efforts to establish a link is going to work despite the kind efforts of George Weiss to help me, but here goes.
3.11.2008 5:06pm
Mac (mail):
Nope, it didn't work. It can't be as hard as I am making it, can it?
3.11.2008 5:07pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Cellulosic ethanol is a myth right now. Maybe not forever, but right now, myth
3.11.2008 5:34pm
Smokey:
Anyone who believes that more CO2 is is bad, on balance, for the world needs to remember what they are mostly made of.

During the Paleocene, 65 million years ago, the Earth was teeming with life -- much more so than today. CO2 levels were in the thousands of parts per million, vs today's geologically low level [under ~380 ppm].

It is a tribute to the effectiveness of the media that some folks still buy into the [now falsified] hypothesis that carbon dioxide is evil and must be sequestered at astronomical cost - for zero benefit.

Ethanol as the Earth's savior is just as bogus a conjecture.
3.11.2008 9:19pm
Jack S. (mail) (www):

Anyone who believes that more CO2 is is bad, on balance, for the world needs to remember what they are mostly made of.


CO2? Really? I thought we'd all just float away then. There's a difference between carbon (the black stuff or if you're luck, diamonds), the biochemicals that make us up and CO2. Kind of like there's a difference between cocaine and crack (chemically speaking).

The image of C02 vs. temp is interesting but rather worthless without an explanation of what it means and some level of review (yes, I see who the professors are who built it). I guess it helps make broad conclusory statements though.
3.12.2008 5:49am
Smokey:
I guess it helps make broad conclusory statements though.
Sort of like "carbon credits", eh?
3.12.2008 11:24am
J. Graham (mail):
2 facts, a sound estimate, a plagiarized conclusion, and a quote.

Carbon dioxide is 0.000383 of our atmosphere by volume.

Only 2.75 percent of atmospheric CO2 is anthropogenic in origin.

The amount we emit is said to be up from 1 percent a decade ago.

Despite the increased emissions, If the atmosphere was a 100-story building, our anthropogenic CO2 contribution today would be equivalent to the linoleum on the first floor.

"Any warming from the growth of greenhouse gases is likely to be minor, difficult to detect above the natural fluctuations of the climate, and therefore inconsequential. In addition, the impacts of warming and of higher CO2 levels are likely to be beneficial for human activities and especially for agriculture." - Dr. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia,
3.15.2008 12:39am