Biodiesel for Trucks: Not Necessarily Green

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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.

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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’sUpWithThat.com 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.”

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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.

Greener Ideal strives to help you live your life in more sustainable ways with green living tips, healthy recipes and commentary on the latest environment news. The views expressed by guest authors are their own and may not reflect those of Greener Ideal.

3 COMMENTS

  1. There are couple of things that are majorly off.

    1) According to the EPA’s extensive studies, there are savings of upwards of 80% in CO2 and other emissions, not 30 to 40% claimed by the article.
    2) To claim that just planting plants will solve the problem, basically shows the naivette. A grown plant ban breath in about 45 lbs of CO2 a year, vs a gallon of Diesel fuel emits close to 24 lbs of CO2. And we usedabout 60 billion gallons of Diesel fuel in the U.S in 2011… you do the math, how many trees we need to plant??

    Simply put, Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to Diesel right now, that can do the job of greatly reducing the emissions without too many changes to the infrastructure or equipment.

  2. Biodiesel is not only the greenest fuel on the planet, but using biodiesel is the most powerful thing we can do to reduce carbon emissions. Here are just a few reasons why:

    The USEPA certifies that all biodiesel sold in the US reduces GHGs by a minimum of 50%. Most biodiesel exceeds 80% GHG reduction. This includes full lifecycle analysis of all inputs and indirect effects. Palm oil is not approved by EPA is not part of US biodiesel supplies.

    52% of the biodiesel produced in the US comes from soybean oil. The rest comes from very diverse sources including wastes and recycled products. The diversity of feedstocks is growing as the biodiesel industry grows. This is because soybeans are not planted for biodiesel. Soybeans are planted for protein. 80% of a soybean crop consists of protein meal. Biodiesel does not use protein. Biodiesel only uses the surplus oil that is co-produced with protein meal. In this way, biodiesel reduces the cost of protein for livestock producers.

    Soybeans are a nitrogen-fixing crop, which means they take nitrogen out of the air and add their own fertilizer to the soil. Soybeans are grown in rotation with other crops, because this saves farmers money on fertilizer. Nitrous oxide emissions are included in the lifecycle analysis for biodiesel. Biodiesel reduces net GHGs by 80% or more. This includes the potency of GHGs like N2O and CH4 (natural gas). The global warming potential for each is converted into CO2 equivalents.

    The Fox News story is wrong because trees don’t live forever. When those trees die, their carbon reverts back to the atmosphere. When they burn or decompose, they release all their CO2. Burning fossil fuel means taking carbon permanently from underground and spewing it into the air. That is why we have a greenhouse gas problem.

    The only way to mitigate climate change is to stop taking carbon out of the ground. Biodiesel offers us the best alternative to recycle carbon. Biodiesel captures solar energy in a liquid form and works within natures cycle of carbon between plants and the air. We need liquid fuel, and the best liquid fuel is biodiesel.

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