Biodiesel Wants Help, But Does It Deserve It?

You gotta love the biodiesel story, in which used french fry grease that otherwise would go into the landfill (or even worse, down the drain) is turned into environmentally friendly fuel to power our vehicles and heat our homes.

If only that’s how it typically happened. Biodiesel does burn a lot cleaner than purely petroleum-based fuel, but it’s more likely to come from soybeans than it is old cooking grease. In that sense, biodiesel isn’t a whole lot different than ethanol, which comes mainly from corn. Biodiesel has its advocates in the scientific community, but the consensus view is more along the lines of what the Union of Concerned Scientists says: “(I)t is possible that the lifecycle global warming pollution of soybean biodiesel is even higher than petroleum diesel, once indirect land use changes are considered.”

biofuels,biodiesel,soybean oil

image via Shutterstock

What prompts this little treatise on biodiesel? Well, the National Biodiesel Board is making a big push this week for government support. Industry leaders are in Washington, D.C., to, as they put it, “call on Congress to extend the expired biodiesel tax incentive and to urge the Obama administration to quickly finalize the EPA’s proposal to grow biodiesel volumes under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) next year.”

The biodiesel tax incentive was a $1 per gallon credit that was enacted in 2004 and extended in 2008, but then expired at the end of last year. The renewable fuel standard is a law that requires refiners and importers to use mandated amounts of renewables in their blends, or face penalties. It’s the latter issue that’s more vital to the biodiesel people, since it guarantees a market for their products.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. production of biodiesel in 2011 was 967 million gallons, the most since tracking started in 2001. Production came from 103 biodiesel plants that had an annual capacity of 2.1 billion gallons.

The National Biodiesel Board describes biodiesel as “made from an increasingly diverse mix of resources such as recycled cooking oil, soybean oil and animal fats,” but according to the EIA, grease of any sort is actually far down the list as a source of biodiesel. The agency reports that in 2011, soybean oil was the largest biodiesel feedstock with 4,153 million pounds consumed. The next three largest biodiesel feedstocks were canola oil (847 million pounds), white grease (533 million pounds) and yellow grease (471 million pounds).

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

    • Stewart

      That finish is very misleading. Highway diesel consumption in the US is around 33 billion gallons a year, so 1 billion gallons is already nearly 3% and it could go much higher as more and more biodiesel plants are built using more and more sources. Some notable ones not mentioned but currently underway are chicken fat, cottonseed oil, and algae oil. No one source is a silver bullet, but there are a heck of a lot of non-silver bullets out there.