Biodiesel for Trucks: Not Necessarily Green


Bio-fuel is a big trend in the transportation industry right now. Biodiesel makes it easy for trucking companies to institute big changes in their business practices because many engines can run on biodiesel with little to no modification. In most cases, bio-fuel does burn cleaner than its more widely used counterpart. There are advantages, especially in an industry like commercial trucking that uses a ton of gas. The thing is that people view biodiesel with so many happy little rainbows clouding their eyes that they don’t realize the other inherent environmental implications it carries.


Kind of Clean

Biodiesel encompasses a few different things. It’s generally made of vegetable oil, but can also be made from animal waste products. It can be used on its own or blended with traditional fuels. The most eco-friendly form of biodiesel is made from vegetable oil waste (what might be left over from a fryer at a restaurant, for instance) but the demand is big enough that entire crops are harvested just for biodiesel.

  • Burns Cleaner – Biodiesel does burn cleaner than more traditional diesel. Studies say it ranges anywhere from 20% to 38% cleaner than regular diesel. That means that the trucks themselves produce less carbon emissions.
  • Cleans the Engine – Biodiesel helps to lubricate engines and clean some of the gunk that regular diesel leaves behind. Overall, it seems to be better for actual truck motors than regular diesel.

The American Trucking Association (ATA) also approves of biodiesel because it seems to be cheap and easy to implement. The problem is that there are different kinds of bio-fuel and different growing practices, and those greatly impact the fuel’s environmental friendliness—especially when talking about such a large industry like trucking.


Blurring the Lines

Now we start with the bad news. Though the fuel itself might burn a bit cleaner, it’s not at all free of dire environmental consequences. People tend to focus on only the direct carbon emissions from the fuel itself instead of considering other environmental factors that go into the production and use of biodiesel.

  • Kind of Fuel – As mentioned previously, there are a few ways to implement bio fuel in the trucking industry. Fuels made from direct plant or animal wastes (from restaurants, slaughterhouses, etc.) are the cleanest and greenest in terms of overall environmental effects. Most biodiesel does not come from these sources, however, since it’s not easy to produce fuel that way on a mass scale. Instead,  most biodiesel comes from crops that are grown expressly for that purpose. Those crops, the way they’re grown, the kind of fertilizer they use and the way the land is treated all matter greatly.
  • Kind of Crop – As previously mentioned, waste products make the healthiest fuel but they don’t provide enough biodiesel to meet demands. Palm oil is one of the biggest sources of biodiesel, but the way it’s cultivated causes alarming Co2 emissions. In addition, these “factory farms” often destroy animal habitats, infringe upon entire ecosystems and compromise natural resources. Soy seems to be the healthiest crop to grow for biodiesel, but that still depends on fertilizer and healthy growing practices.

A study from the University of Leicester confirms this, especially about palm oil. What’ reports, “The Leicester team established that the scale of greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm plantations on peat is significantly higher than previously assumed. They concluded that a value of 86 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per hectare per year (annualised over 50 years) is the most robust currently available estimate; this compares with previous estimates of around 50 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per hectare per year. CO2 emissions increase further if you are interested specifically in the short term greenhouse gas implications of palm oil production – for instance under the EU Renewable Energy Directive which assesses emissions over 20 years, the corresponding emissions rate would be 106 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per hectare per year.”


The Real Green

This isn’t to say that biodiesel won’t ever be viable, but right now it’s not making a big environmental impact. If farmers heated with biomass and not coal, limited their fertilizer amounts and paid close attention to the kind of crops they were growing, the carbon footprint might even out.

According to a Fox News report, Environmental Impact Assessment Review editor Eric Johnson reported that planting trees on that same land bio-fuel crops are grown on would do more good than switching trucks over to biodiesel.

However, in most cases that Johnson looked at, planting trees on the farmland and using regular diesel made a larger dent in carbon-dioxide levels than producing and using biodiesel. The article continues, “This is partly because commonly used fertilizers emit nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has nearly 300 times more warming effect than carbon dioxide, which tends to get all the attention.”

The trucking industry does need to look to more environmentally friendly practices, but that answer might not lie in biodiesel. If biodiesel producers could effectively use and distribute vegetable oil waste and animal parts on a wide scale, it would be a viable solution. Unfortunately, it’s not currently possible to distribute that kind of bio-fuel to a necessary degree. There is a bright future in biodiesel, but we’re not there yet—fully incorporating biodiesel in its current form into the large machine that is the trucking industry would do more environmental harm than good.