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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Everything Old is New Again; Biofuels, Still a Bad Idea

Gorilla at Woodland Park Zoo

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

I recently recieved two emails on the same day; one about more palm oil plantations usurping yet another tropical ecosystem, this time for highly endangered African Gorillas instead of Indonesian Orangutans, and the other from my local Sierra Club asking me to urge my elected representatives to reject a transportation funding bill that would not allow our Governor to mandate the consumption of biofuels. Instead, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times expressing my opposition to a biofuel mandate (which, of course, wasn't published). I put a copy of that rejected submission at the end of this post as an example of what not to send to the Seattle Times Op Ed department.

And today the headline in the Seattle Times reads: "Inslee, the ‘greenest’ governor — not so much"

"He pushed ahead with a highway-expanding $16 billion transportation package, accepting a “poison pill” provision that could hinder his administration’s plans to enact a new clean-fuels regulation.

The Republican-backed provision would divert hundreds of millions of dollars away from transit, bicycling and walking projects if the Inslee administration tries to enact the cleaner fuels rule, known as a low-carbon fuel standard, by executive order."
Printed newspapers are in the middle of their own extinction event, which isn't moving fast enough in my opinion. I wrote my first critique of biodiesel in an article for Grist back in 2005 called "Bad Idea" at the height of the biodiesel fad hitting Seattle. In 2009 I wrote an article about why Seattle dropped the use of biodiesel.

Scientists submitting work to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are having issues over the issue of biofuels. The following paragraph represents the compromise wording finally released last year to placate both sides:
“Biofuels have direct, fuel‐cycle GHG emissions that are typically 30–90% lower than those for gasoline or diesel fuels. However, since for some biofuels indirect emissions—including from land use change—can lead to greater total emissions than when using petroleum products, policy support needs to be considered on a case by case basis”
The problem in my eyes is that, thanks to human nature, the profit motive will continue to roll over indigenous people and ecosystems. Corporations sensitive to public image simply sell off problematic plantations to corporations who are not so sensitive. At one point in our recent geologic history, there were several upright walking primate species coexisting on this planet with our species. We are the last primate species that will walk on this planet, but hopefully, we won't one day be the last primate species.

With shifting climate patterns, drought in five states, forest fires raging from Alaska to Southern California, chronic water shortages, and a global population still growing by roughly 75 million a year , how wise is it to further expand agriculture to fuel our cars?

As we approached our campsite in Okanogan County a few weeks ago we saw what we thought was a big thundercloud on the horizon which turned out to be a forest fire burning just fifteen miles away. Our tents were dusted with falling ash before it was brought under control. Another camper had recently returned from a camping trip where even the Hoh rain forest is experiencing its largest fire in recorded history. In the last several years it has become the norm to check for forest fires before setting off on a camping trip. This is how it happens. Slowly, over time, changes to the environment become accepted as the norm, with only the old-timers remembering what used to be (sky darkening clouds of passenger pigeons, herds of bison over the horizon, Carolina parakeets, ivory billed woodpeckers).

Washington State, thanks to its mountains and river systems providing hydro electric power, has one of the lowest carbon electrical grids in the nation along with some of the lowest electricity rates. It puts Germany's electrical grid to shame with respect to both carbon emissions and especially cost (never mind for the moment the destruction of salmon and sturgeon migrations that resulted).

US State GHG Emissions
German GHG Emissions

That's the thing about renewable energy. Economic viability is a function of where on the planet you are. ...location, location, location. A one-size-fits-all global solution, it is not. Whatever mix and associated costs Germany settles on will be unique to Germany.

By circumstance, Washington is already way ahead of the game when it comes to decarbonizing energy consumption. By comparison, a State like Indiana; flat as a board, not particularly sunny or windy, using a lot of air-conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter, and powered mostly by coal might best be decarbonized with the help of nuclear energy.

Indiana GHG Emissions

Washington's main source of carbon comes from transportation. Electric cars would not be particularly effective at reducing emissions in Indiana thanks to the coal used to make electricity. On the other hand, they can be highly effective in Washington State.

As an agricultural powerhouse, Indiana could try decarbonizing its transport sector with corn and soy beans. This idea of the Midwest consuming their own biofuel products was first suggested by Robert Rapier years ago. Never mind for the moment that corn ethanol may not actually reduce carbon emissions much, if at all. A University of Wisconsin study published this year by the Institute of Physics estimated that emissions from the expansion of cropland in the United States to meet demand for mandated use of biofuels was "equivalent to a year's carbon dioxide release from 34 coal-fired power plants or an additional 28 million cars on the road."

The Governor of Indiana does not mandate the use of flex fuel cars and E85 gas, or even a blend of soybean biodiesel quite simply because the economic cost of doing so would largely negate the high grain prices being received by Indiana farmers (transfer of wealth) thanks to the federal fuel mandates.

Maybe Indiana should burn corn instead of coal to make electricity? And I realize that sounds absurd but there are wood stoves designed to do just that. Displacing coal with corn might be less carbon intensive than making a liquid fuel out of it, but again, it all comes down to cost. Coal is a lot cheaper than corn ...and I don't know which lobby is more powerful in Indiana, corn or coal.

Which brings us back to Washington State. Instead of doing something really innovative, like promoting the installation of high speed chargers at 7-Elevens (or wherever) in urban areas to match Tesla's Walled Garden of high-speed chargers which are only for Tesla owners, our Governor favors the more politically astute strategy of mandating biofuel use to capture the farm vote. For now, he can't do that but because he tried, he will still get his farm vote and that's how politics work.

For anyone interested, more about the camping trip below:
Our campsite on the dry side of the mountains in Washington State, which we have returned to for many years, was, for the first time, visited by rattlesnakes, one of which I carried away from the campsite on the end of my camera monopole. He was curious about the pole, nosed it a few times, and once I got him to crawl over the "far" end, I was able to gently picked him up without alarm. When I sat him back down a safer distance from the tents, he calmly crawled away the opposite direction of the campsite.

Western Rattlesnake Western Rattlesnake

I failed to get a picture of any of them but they were similar to the subspecies shown above (photo courtesy Wikipedia). The pattern looks similar to that of a common gopher snake, especially after dark. One teenage camper had actually reached down to pick up what he thought was a gopher snake after dark but thought better of it when he heard a strange rattle sound. Two problems; gopher snakes are not nocturnal and what are the odds the rattle sound was not from a rattlesnake? That was a close call and I hope he learned a lesson.

Dragonfly on a stick
Dragonfly on a stick
If you see three rattlesnakes, you can bet there are more you didn't see, and they tend to come out at night. They're pit vipers. Those small pits located on their heads are sensory organs that can essentially see heat, especially at night when the cooler air contrasts better with a warm prey body ...that also can't see the snake in the dark. My guess is that the especially dry, hot weather was drawing them out of the hills toward the lake in search of water. Our campsite just happened to lay between the hills and the lake.

Immature Rubber Boa Immature Rubber Boa

Minutes after I had moved the rattlesnake, my wife and daughter walked up with a young rubber boa that had been crossing the road. No mistaking one of these for a rattlesnake. Like rattlesnakes, rubber boas are often active at night but also spend most of their time underground (note its small eyes). You will rarely see the other common snakes in this area (racer, garter, or gopher snake) out after sunset. I've included a few other photos from past camping events below.

Mature Rubber Boa

Mountain Blue Bird Mountain Blue Bird

Tree Frogs Tree Frogs

bigmantis Immature Praying Mantis (photo by Jack Stephens)

Osprey Osprey

Frog on a flower

And for anyone interested, the copy of the rejected submission to the Seattle Times follows:

This is Why We Have a Two Party Political System
Thankfully, the senate transportation package on its way to Governor Inslee's desk still contains the purported poison pill (language that should prevent Governor Inslee from mandating the consumption of biofuels). Roughly a third of America's corn harvest is already in our gas tanks thanks to federally mandated biofuel consumption. Last year, the IPCC warned that some biofuels can lead to more total emissions than petroleum based fuels and that "increasing bioenergy crop cultivation poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity."

A University of Wisconsin study published this year by the Institute of Physics estimated that emissions from the expansion of cropland in the United States to meet demand for mandated use of biofuels was "equivalent to a year's carbon dioxide release from 34 coal-fired power plants or an additional 28 million cars on the road."

Times change. At the height of Seattle's biodiesel craze you could practically walk across Ballard on the top of smelly, soot spewing, biodiesel fueled Jettas. The once ubiquitous biodiesel bumper stickers have practically disappeared.

Governor Inslee is an old-school biofuel enthusiast and long-time supporter of the biofuel industry. In 2007 he co-wrote the book "Apollo's Fire" which extolled the virtues of corn ethanol (25 mentions), biodiesel (31 mentions), and cellulosic ethanol (42 mentions). The book also praised the newly formed Imperium Renewables biodiesel refinery in Grays Harbor (12 mentions) ...which has since decided to get into the oil business by expanding its facilities to transfer a daily trainload of crude oil to tanker ships bound for refineries along the West coast.

From the book:
“It would be comforting to avoid the prospect of being proven wrong by the passage of time. But your authors are built of sterner stock. We refuse to take refuge in the privilege of punditry to cloak our comments in vague surmises.”
One of many predictions proved wrong by the passage of time was that "cellulosic ethanol will make a rapid penetration of the market" and that "meaningful amounts of cellulosic ethanol" will be available at service stations across the country by 2011. According to the EPA, there was no cellulosic ethanol available in 2011and last year, total national production of cellulosic ethanol was still measured in the thousands of gallons while corn ethanol exceeded 14 billion gallons. It is entirely likely that cellulosic ethanol may one day be dropped from the biofuel mandate.

With shifting weather patterns, drought conditions in five states, and forest fires raging from Alaska to Southern California, how smart is it to expand agriculture to fuel our cars? There are many other options we can take to reduce our transportation footprint. For example, in Seattle, a two-car family driving a Prius and a Leaf emit half the GHG emissions per mile of a one-car family driving a car that gets the U.S. average for gas mileage.


University of Wisconsin Study: page 9, and

Amount of corn used for ethanol:

IPCC quote:

Quotes from book Apollo's Fire used "search inside the book" on

Two-car family calculation:

Prius MPG = 48:

U.S. Average MPG = 24:

Nissan Leaf in Seattle is charged by Seattle City Light Grid which is composed of 95% low carbon energy sources hydro, wind, and nuclear:

Imperium Renewables oil transport:

Cellulosic Ethanol available in 2011: