Cows, beans, and biodiesel – The tricky politics of alternative energy

Biodiesel is one of the most promising sources of renewable energy. Made from crops like soy beans, American supporters claim it can enhance national security, protect the environment, and reduce the trade deficit. Farmers, environmentalists, and opponents of the war in Iraq all support biodiesel and all for different reasons. With an advocacy coalition like this, how can biodiesel fail?

The problem may be politics. Even with oil prices rising, biodiesel’s viability in the market depends on government subsidy and regulation. US senators from farm states like Indiana and Nebraska support a renewable fuels bill because it will help corn and soybean producers. Country music star Willie Nelson supports it because it will put "farmers back on the land growing fuel and keep us from having to start wars for oil."

Farmers and commercial biodiesel producers will need to build public support to persuade governments to mandate targets, provide subsidies, and buy the product for their own use. And if consumers and taxpayers are going to bear the increased costs involved in switching to biodiesel then the product will need to be seen as better than the alternatives. Apart from funneling money to farmers biodiesel’s major advantages are environmental. Biodiesel is a renewable fuel which produces less pollution than regular diesel. It doesn’t need to be shipped across the world in oil tankers and, if it does spill, it breaks down more easily.

But selling biodiesel on its environmental credentials could be risky. Many environmental activists are opposed to genetically modified crops. In the US a large proportion of the soybean crop is genetically modified. This is already creating tension for the alliance between greens and soybean growers.

Another less obvious problem is opposition from animal rights activists. Biodiesel doesn’t need to be made from vegetable oils. In some cases it is made using beef tallow, pig lard, or chicken fat. The American rendering industry has been keen to capture the same tax incentives as the soy industry. Groups like PETA already advise their members against using products like soaps and crayons that are made using rendered animal fats. The rendering industry is already preparing for a scare campaign over biodiesel and mad cow disease.

Just as wind power has run into trouble for killing wildlife and spoiling views biodiesel could also run foul of environmental and animal rights activism. Unlike petrol, soap, or bacon, biodiesel needs government support to become a viable product.

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John McVey
2021 years ago

On the ‘renewable’ front, the first question that would occur to me is simple the simple thermodynamics one that kills the ethanol fuel idea (for the time being): does it take less than one kilojoule to get from start of soil prep through to getting one kilojoule’s worth of finished product pumped into a fuel tank? If yes then there’s probably something to it eventually.

If not, then “renewability” is out the window and the next question with current production techniques is: does it take less than one kilojoule to get one kilojoule’s worth of crop to a grid-powered refinery? Whether yes or no, grid means either coal or hydro or nuclear. If yes then again there is still possibly something to it eventually, as then the issue changes from being one about ‘energy’ to one about ‘transport fuel.’

If no a second time, then biodiesel is likely best kept as a lab curio. If no but still promoted, then really the advocacy of it becomes questionable, both on the part of suppliers effectively scamming for subsidies (eg Archer Daniels Midland’s or CSR’s lobbying for ethanol) and anti-industrialists slowly boiling our civilisation-frog.


2021 years ago

“Unlike petrol, soap, or bacon, biodiesel needs government support to become a viable product.”

Evidence of another market failure. I’m so over the market.

2021 years ago

“anti-industrialists slowly boiling our civilisation-frog”

Does this mean that it’s really the greenies that are causing global warming?

2021 years ago

The other big problem is the sheer scope of how much gasoline gets used. Let’s use alcohol as an example. From a pro-biofuels site I’ve read, you get 2.5 gallons of “squeezin’s” out of a bushel of corn, and with modern farming 110-150 bushels per acre. Best case scenario, that’s over 180 square miles of corn to supply California for one day at a current usage of 44,000,000 gallons per day. (Leaving aside alcohol being a less efficent fuel than gasoline)To keep the Californians driving for a year, you’ve got to distill nearly 67,000 square miles of corn. An area about the size of Washington state, as a point of reference.

Biofuels work great if you’ve got a little commune or ranch and want to be off the grid. They just don’t scale well as a general purpose fuel.

Robert Merkel
2021 years ago

Further to Cybrludite’s comments, I have a post on the blog (follow the link) which gives some indication of the truly impossible scale of plantings required to generate significant amounts of fuel from crops. Without the development of the “biodiesel-from-algae” technology, it’s not going to be vaguely feasible.

2021 years ago

Let’s face it. It all boils down to do we really want a world run by fart power – in deed as well in word?

2021 years ago

Some joker has just shown me a very readable peak oil article (in Rolling Stone no less), that cites a leaked US Dept of Energy report that says:

“Intervention by governments will be required, because the economic and social implications of oil peaking would otherwise be chaotic. But the process will not be easy. Expediency may require major changes to … lengthy environmental reviews and lengthy public involvement.”

So Don, you point has been proven, greenies and animal-libbers will be asked to pipe down on this. (Afterall Quakers have already had their cause trashed, so only fair that others share the burden.)

Link to Rolling Stone article is

Oil Crash
11 years ago

I understand that peak oil is true and that we are now past the point of peak oil. I think many of the current events have to do with this fact and it won’t be long before the main stream media and population wake up and understand what is going on. For me and my family, we are preparing for the life after the crash.