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(en) UK Solidarity Federation - DA #27 - How green is my biofuel?

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 17 Jun 2003 19:31:16 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

Given the oil wars, is the European Union scared of running on empty?
There's more to green fuels initiatives than meets the eye.
The European Commission has recently announced a new Directive on
Biofuels, reflecting the fact that the European Union (except the UK)
is keen to see these green fuels developed as soon as practicable. The
main outcome of the Directive is that a voluntary target for biofuels
has been set to enable Europe to meet 5.75% of its petrol and diesel
needs through biofuels within the next few years. This might not sound
like much, but it is a start. There is, however, much intrigue behind the

Before the intrigue, it is worth outlining the current situation regarding
these green fuels, and dispelling a few myths in the process. Firstly,
there are lots of possibilities for getting energy directly from plants,
rather than from crude, coal or natural gas. Some of them involve
‘blue sky’ technologies which haven’t yet been proven,
such as manufacturing hydrogen or using enzymes to break down
lingocellulosic matter within woody plant matter. This is all very
technical and futuristic, but there are current technologies to make
diesel and petrol from everyday crops, such as oilseed rape, wheat and
sugar beet, using proven methods. For example, the ‘diesel from
oilseed rape’ method involves simply extracting the oil from the
seed and then cleaning or esterifying it, while the ‘petrol from
wheat or beet’ methods both involve making industrial ethanol.

In fact, there are even simpler ways to make ‘green’ diesel.
One is to collect used frying oil, clean it using a garden shed level of
technology, and stick it straight in your diesel fuel tank. In the US,
some people have been running their vans on ‘McDiesel’ for
years, by simply going around fast food restaurants and taking their
used oil off them – and the same is true in Britain. Another method
is to simply go to a cheap supermarket and buy 5 litre sized cartons of
sunflower, rape or soya oil. This should work out about 30-40 pence
per litre, rather than 80-odd pence at the oil multinational’s pump.

Of course, it should be pointed out that one reason this is a cheap
option is that it is illegal, since road-going motor vehicles are only
allowed to run on fuel for which the fuel duty has been paid, and the
current rate of tax is around 43 pence per litre. Apparently, there is a
statistical chance of actually getting caught too, as a number of people
in Llanelli found out when they got nicked, after the local cops worked
out that if they followed people who were running their cars on this
Netto’s special brew, the tailpipe emissions smelt like a chip
shop. Still, there are reliable reports that loads of people are doing this
up and down the country – especially dodgy cab drivers, and not
many people have been caught. Anyway, apart from this slight
problem, just how green is your chip-fat chariot?

The biggest environmental problem facing humanity (except the
possibility of horrendous war damage) is global climate change, and it
is no longer a secret that this is due to the burning of fossil fuels,
which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it forms a
‘blanket’, letting the suns rays in, but letting less heat than
normal radiate back out. The result is global warming, which is more
accurately called global climate change, because not everywhere is
simply getting warmer, and there are additional problems taking place,
such as sea level rises, and more stormy weather and floods.

So, burning ordinary (fossil) diesel or petrol in a vehicle basically
takes stored carbon from underground crude oil resources and
releases it into the atmosphere, and this is the key problem. However,
burning biodiesel or bioethanol also releases about the same amount of
carbon dioxide, but this is plant carbon which has been taken from the
atmosphere as the plant grows, so, technically, it is a re-release, and
the net result is that all the carbon released is going to be re-absorbed
when you grow next year’s biodiesel/ethanol crop. So, it causes no
global climate change?

Actually, in order to grow biofuels using modern methods, lots of big
machinery is needed, all of which is made of things like steel and
concrete, which use up fossil fuels in their making. Farming the crops
themselves uses lots of fossil fuels, particularly in the manufacturing
of chemical fertilisers. Nitrogen fertiliser uses natural gas straight
from the North Sea as a feedstock – in other words,
‘Growmore’ and the like are actually made out of natural gas.
If you take all this lot into account, then using modern farming
techniques, it would take about one unit of fossil fuel to make two
units of biofuel. In other words, it is still worth doing, but it is not

There are some other useful spin-offs from using biofuels. One is that
some studies show they burn cleaner, so helping air quality problems
in urban areas, and another is that they are biodegradeable, so
spillages, etc., do not pollute in the same way that fossil fuel spillages
do. On the down side though, most people do not relish the whole
countryside being covered in bright yellow oilseed rape, especially if
they are allergic to pollen, and even more especially if we end up
getting GM oilseed into the biofuel chain. Incidentally, it is also worth
mentioning here that in order to replace 6% of Britain’s current
diesel needs with biodiesel, we would have to plant the entire
set-aside land of Britain with oilseed rape. Admittedly, this is the
worst crop in terms of yield – bioethanol from wheat or beet is
much better in terms of production potential, but the general point is
that we won’t get these green fuels for nothing in terms of
environmental damage.

Enough technical intro, let’s move on to the political intrigue. For a
start, it is clear that for the EU mainland, biofuels are now seen as a
means of diversifying fuel supply away from world oil markets. Since
the US has shown that it is prepared to be more blatant than ever
before about grabbing control of major sources of world oil resources
by force, it would appear to be a prudent move by the EU to look to
alternatives. Hence, while the environmental agenda is still there,
securing fuel supplies which cannot be snatched by the US is now a
major concern.

Another crucial reason why the EU is going for biofuels now is in
order to provide a future for the agricultural industries. As part of the
EU enlargement process, it is inevitable that lots of eastern European
agricultural sectors cannot be given the same sort of subsidies which
the current EU club has been enjoying for so long. Even without EU
enlargement, the fact that tens of billions of Euros a year is being
siphoned off into lining farmers’ nests through the Common
Agricultural Policy (CAP) has long been recognised as unsustainable
in the long run. EU enlargement is the trigger which will force major
reform of the CAP, and thus leave farmers having to compete in world
markets with their products.

This will not be easy, especially given three other factors. Firstly,
other developed countries, such as the US, despite talking about free
markets, actually subsidise their farming sectors, and so already flood
world markets with falsely cheap agri-products. Secondly, and
especially in Britain, the big supermarket friends of Labour have been
allowed to tighten their monopolistic grip on British agri-industry and,
while this continues, domestic farm gate prices will be cut to the bone.
Thirdly, global free trade rhetoric means that there is increasing
pressure on commodities like sugar, to allow sugar cane producing
Third World countries to have a fair chance at competing in European

In short, the future looks bleak for food crops in the EU, so the
non-food crop option looks like a saviour. In fact, it won’t be, but it
may just help a bit. The problem is that there are already world
markets in wheat, sugar and non-mineral oils, so biofuel makers will
simply go to the world market for the cheapest feedstock for their
process. So, the cosy internal biofuel market which some EU
politicians seem to think will emerge to replace the old cosy CAP food
crop market just will not happen. Also, in making biofuels, the labour
and profits are going to be in the processing, not in the crop growing.
Since modern intensive crop production employs few people, and
processing will be done outside the rural areas, there will be no great
boost for struggling rural economies.

Turning to the issue of how biofuels are to be encouraged, there is yet
more intrigue. In Germany and Austria, full tax relief is already
available for biodiesel production. Hence, you can already buy
biodiesel, cheaper than ordinary diesel, at the pump. Also, in order to
feed this rapidly expanding market, oilseed processors are already
buying British rapeseed to make into German biodiesel. In Britain, the
usual policy of ‘fudge it and do too little too late’ is apparently
the main tactic. The Chancellor confirmed in the April budget that a
derogation (fuel tax break) is to be given for biofuels. The amount of
this tax break so far has been quoted by the Government as 20p/litre,
and although there is currently a review going on, the intention seems
to be to go ahead with the new regime from January 2005. Within the
potential UK biofuels industry, it is widely known that a derogation of
27p would be needed to get the industry started, so whether the
Government is calling the industry’s bluff or is not really serious
about biofuels is questionable.

A tax break of 20p/litre has been already in place for two other
forecourt fuels for some time, namely CNG (Compressed Natural
Gas) and LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas). These were apparently
sponsored by the Department of Transport as cleaner city fuels to help
air pollution in cities, although the fuels are allowed to be sold
anywhere, so this seem like a very ‘blunt instrument’ to
achieve cleaner air in cities. Anyway, these fuels are based on fossil
fuels, so they cause lots of global climate change, and they
haven’t caught on, partly because they invariably require changes
to (or new) vehicle engines (whereas biodiesel and bioethanol are
straight replacements for diesel and petrol).

This brings us to one of the key issues with the derogation. Fuel tax
was invented to raise money for Governments, not to differentiate
between green and dirty fuels. As we have seen, bioethanol made
using modern, intensive farmed wheat is probably worth doing
environmentally, but it is not that great because of all the chemical
fertilisers, etc. involved. A far better choice would be to grow it
organically. This would have the major added benefit of actually
helping regenerate rural economies, because organic farming is more
labour-intensive, and so, a larger part of the overall value of the biofuel
would be created in the countryside. In fact, a far better option would
be to take both the wheat grain and the straw off the field to the
bioethanol factory, where the straw could be burnt to generate the
necessary heat and electricity to run the plant. Calculations have
shown that there would be so much of this ‘green’ electricity
left over, that it could be exported to the grid, thus actually making our
national electricity mix greener too. Of course, using the
Government’s chosen method of the derogation blunt instrument,
if there is ever a biofuel industry in Britain, it will be run using the
cheapest (financially) and most expensive (environmentally) options.

So, as usual, the problems and the solutions are clear. Biofuels are not
a permanent panacea for British transport fuels, but they could be a
sensible stop-gap measure, giving us a generation of relatively green
fuels while we sort out the mess we are in with private cars and
congestion. However, in its arrogance, the current Labour regime is
dithering, and will eventually choose a half-cocked implementation
which will ensure the wrong farming methods are used. Indeed, talking
of arrogance, one response from Labour has already been along the
lines of ‘we are likely to reach our Kyoto targets anyway, without
doing anything about transport fuels, so we don’t NEED to do
anything’. In typical style, this misses the main point, that we
need to take every opportunity we can to try to start sorting out the
environmental excrement that modern capitalism has got us in.

Real solutions, of course, will only come when we manage to rid
ourselves of capitalism and parliament, and we can collectively make
sensible decisions about our transport needs and how to provide the
necessary energy to service them. Clearly, the private car is the main
problem, so these fuels are only a partial fix, but the idea of producing
crop-energy locally for local transport use is one which fits well with
collectivist, anarcho-syndicalist principles. Only a collective-run
transport system can deliver a truly integrated system, based on
needs and equity, not quick fixes. One thing is clear; if we managed to
claim the opportunity now as a society to collectively re-organise and
run our transport industry, I would bet my bicycle that we would
immediately decide to make biofuels, and we would do it using organic
methods, and using renewable energy to run the plants, such as small
straw burning power stations. In other words, given the choice we
would go for the sensible, green transitional option while we started to
re-organise transport. We would use the green technology, not the
grey-green technology which the Labour government intends to inflict
upon us, if/when it gets around to it, that is.


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