Category Archives: Renewable diesel

Study Finds Biofuels Worse for Climate than Gasoline

[Editor:  I was wrong.  In a recent post, I applauded Valero Energy for planning a new “renewable diesel” refinery in Texas, and I wondered if Valero Benicia might someday convert to production of renewable fuels.  Here’s why “renewable” doesn’t necessarily mean “clean.”  – R.S.]

Climate Central, by John Upton, August 25th, 2016

Corn is the main crop used in the U.S. to produce biofuel. Credit: Jim Deane/Flickr

Years of number crunching that had seemed to corroborate the climate benefits of American biofuels were starkly challenged in a science journal on Thursday, with a team of scientists using a new approach to conclude that the climate would be better off without them.

Based largely on comparisons of tailpipe pollution and crop growth linked to biofuels, University of Michigan Energy Institute scientists estimated that powering an American vehicle with ethanol made from corn would have caused more carbon pollution than using gasoline during the eight years studied.

Most gasoline sold in the U.S. contains some ethanol, and the findings, published in Climatic Change, were controversial. They rejected years of work by other scientists who have relied on a more traditional approach to judging climate impacts from bioenergy — an approach called life-cycle analysis.

Following the hottest month on record globally, and with temperatures nearly 2°F warmer and tides more than half a foot higher than they were in the 1800s, the implications of biofuels causing more harm to the climate than good would be sweeping.

The research was financially supported by the American Petroleum Institute, which represents fossil fuel industry companies and has sued the federal government over its biofuel rules.

“I’m bluntly telling the life-cycle analysis community, ‘Your method is inappropriate,’” said professor John DeCicco, who led the work. “I evaluated to what extent have we increased the rate at which the carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere?”

Lifecycle analyses assume that all carbon pollution from biofuels is eventually absorbed by growing crops. DeCicco’s analysis found that energy crops were responsible for additional plant growth that absorbed just 37 percent of biofuel pollution from 2005 to 2013, leaving most of it in the atmosphere, where it traps heat.

“The question, ‘How does the overall greenhouse gas emission impact of corn ethanol compare to that of gasoline?’ does not have a scientific answer,” DeCicco said. “What I can say definitively is that, whatever the magnitude of the emissions impact is, it is unambiguously worse than petroleum gasoline.”

The findings were criticized by scientists whose work is directly challenged by them.

Argonne National Laboratory scientist Michael Wang, who has led lifecycle analyses that found climate benefits from different biofuels, called the research “highly questionable” for a range of technical reasons, including its focus on growth by American crops instead of the global network of farms.

Driven by federal and Californian policies that promote biofuels to slow global warming, the use of ethanol, biodiesel and similar products more than trebled nationwide during the years studied, providing 6 percent of Americans’ fuel by 2013. Federal data shows gasoline sold in the U.S. last year contained about 10 percent corn ethanol.

Thursday’s paper provided fresh fuel for a heated debate among opposing groups of scientists over bioenergy’s climate impacts. Some are certain it’s a helper in the fight against climate change. Others are convinced it’s a threat.

“In the long run, there’s no question that biofuels displacing petroleum is a benefit,” said Daniel Schrag, a geology professor at Harvard who advises the EPA on bioenergy climate impacts. His views sharply oppose those of DeCicco. “It’s just a question of how long you have to wait.”

Eight years of pollution from biofuels compared with extra carbon absorption by energy crops. Michigan scientists found 37 percent of the pollution remained in the atmosphere — 83 teragrams. Credit: DeCicco et al., Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use, Climatic Change, 2016

Schrag dismissed Thursday’s findings, saying there’s no reason to develop a new approach to measuring biofuels’ impacts. He said the proposed new approach fails because it doesn’t account for the years it can take for bioenergy to benefit the climate.

Analyses by scientists who have studied the life-cycle impacts of growing corn and other crops to produce ethanol have generally concluded biofuels can create between 10 percent to 50 percent less carbon dioxide pollution than gasoline.

Those estimates have been based on the notion that although bioenergy releases an initial blast of carbon dioxide pollution, the benefits of it accrue over time, as crops, trees and grass grow and suck that carbon dioxide back into their roots, flowers and leaves.

Such benefits are more conceptual than scientific, turning scientific debates at the EPA and elsewhere over how to calculate them into seemingly intractable policy quagmires.

“What timescale should we look at?,” Schrag said. “Some of the fundamental questions about timescale are not scientific questions. They are societal questions.”

The University of Michigan scientists dispensed with the timescale-based approach altogether, eliminating the need for policy decisions about which timeframes should be used. Instead, their research provided an overview of eight years of overall climate impacts of America’s multibillion-dollar biofuel sector.

The findings from the new approach were welcomed by Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton researcher who has been a vocal critic of bioenergy. He has been speaking out for years about the shortcomings of traditional approaches used to measure its climate impacts.

Searchinger said the approach developed in Michigan provides an “additional calculation” to help overcome the flawed assumption that climate pollution released when bioenergy burns does not matter.

Although European officials have warned of the limitations of the use of lifecycle analyses in assessing the climate impacts of bioenergy, the EPA has been steadfast for more than five years in its attempts to create a new regulatory framework that would continue to embrace the approach.

“The U.S. is not coming close to offsetting the carbon released by burning biofuels through additional crop growth,” Searchinger said.


You May Also Like:
Study Suggests Earlier Onset of Human-Driven Warming
The Future of National Parks is Going to be a Lot Hotter
In Streak of Extreme Storms, What’s the Role of Warming?

Share...

    Valero, Darling planning major “renewable diesel” refinery in Port Arthur TX

    [Editor:  I suppose this is almost good news – although in the manufacture and ultimate burning of these “renewable” fuels, large amounts of CO2 and other pollutants are produced, contributing to our climate emergency in the same way as fossil fuels.  (Thanks for the clarification, AZ!)  I wonder … could Valero’s Benicia Refinery be converted someday to production of RENEWABLE fuels?  Also, I’m curious about San Francisco’s 2015 plan to convert its municipal fleet from petroleum to renewable diesel by the end of the year.  Did it happen?  – R.S.]
    Houston Chronicle, by Jordan Blum, September 9, 2019
    The Valero refinery in Port Arthur.>> Click through the following gallery to see the world's largest refineries. Photo: Jon Shapley, Staff Photographer / Staff Photographer / © 2018 Houston Chronicle
    The Valero refinery in Port Arthur. Photo: Jon Shapley, Staff Photographer / Staff Photographer

    Valero Energy and Darling Ingredients said Monday they’re planning to build a massive renewable diesel refinery in Port Arthur.

    The companies, which have a 50-50 joint venture called Diamond Green Diesel, would build the first-ever renewable diesel plant in Texas. They’re currently in the early engineering and cost review stages, so the project isn’t definitely going forward, but it’s clear they want to make the project happen.

    Renewable diesel is a much cleaner product that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, instead making diesel out of waste animal fats and waste vegetable oils, including used cooking oil and inedible corn oil.

    Renewable diesel uses similar ingredients as biofuels, but it is more chemically similar to crude oil-based diesel and can more easily be used in conventional engines without as many blending ingredients.

    Valero Chief Executive Joe Gorder said he expected more political mandates for low-carbon fuels across the globe to continue to drive demand growth for renewable diesel fuels.

    Darling CEO Randall Stuewe added, “The demand for a low-carbon fuel solution continues to grow, as markets move to reduce their carbon intensity. Leveraging its proven technology, (Diamond Green Diesel) continues to adapt and expand production to address that need for the benefit of our environment, our customers and our shareholders.”

    RELATED: Valero Energy’s renewable diesel refinery to see $1.1B in upgrades

    San Antonio-based Valero and Dallas’ Darling first teamed up to build a small renewable diesel plant outside of New Orleans, and now they’re dramatically expanding that refinery.

    The project proposed for an undisclosed location in Port Arthur would churn out 400 million gallons of renewable diesel per year, or 1.1 million gallons daily.

    The companies don’t expect to make a final decision and commence construction until 2021 and the refinery wouldn’t open until 2024.

    Share...

      SF Mayor touts green vehicles at Vatican conference

      Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate)
      [Editor:  The San Francisco Chronicle ran three (!) stories on the Vatican Conference on climate change, including two rather stiff challenges to California Governor Jerry Brown.  See below for one.  See also: As California pumps out oil, Gov. Brown says world must cut back … and Editorial: A climate pilgrimage.  – RS]

      Mayor touts S.F.’s green vehicle plans at Vatican conference

      By Emily Green, July 21, 2015 4:25 pm,

      San Francisco will switch its municipal fleet — some 6,000 vehicles ranging from fire trucks to police cars — from petroleum to renewable diesel by the end of the year, Mayor Ed Lee said Tuesday during his trip to the Vatican.

      “We’re taking action that is good for the global climate, and at the same time promotes environmental justice in our community by leading to cleaner, healthier air for some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods,” Lee said. “The city of St. Francis is answering the pope’s call for local action on global climate change.”

      His comments came at a major conference hosted by Pope Francis focusing on climate change and human trafficking.

      Renewable diesel — which can be derived from soybean, palm, canola or rapeseed oil, plus animal tallow and grease — is more environmentally friendly than petroleum, but also more expensive to produce. The city will finance the transition by relying on a mix of federal and state rebates, which administration officials said makes biodiesel available at or below the cost of regular gas.

      San Francisco has some of the most progressive environmental policies in the country. From 1990 to 2012, it reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent, said Roger Kim, a senior adviser to Lee on the environment. And it has a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2025.

      It began moving away from petroleum diesel six years ago by transitioning to a blend of fuel that is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel. Last year, the San Francisco Fire Department piloted the use of 100 percent renewable diesel for its fleet.

      Renewable diesel is not the same as biodiesel. While both derive in large part from plant and animal oils, they are produced through different chemical processes.

      Share...

        Why Airlines Keep Pushing Biofuels: They Have No Choice

        Repost from The New York Times

        Why Airlines Keep Pushing Biofuels: They Have No Choice

        By  Jonathan Fahey & Scott Mayerowitz, AP Business, July 21, 2015, 12:52 P.M. E.D.T.
        FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2009 file photo, a Japan Air Lines staffer checks the biofuel-loaded No. 3 engine of Japan Airlines Boeing 747-300 before a demo flight at Tokyo International Airport in Tokyo. Using blend of 50 percent biofuel and 50 percent traditional Jet-A jet (kerosene) fuel, JAL conducted an hour-long demonstration flight. Many in the industry believe that without a replacement for jet fuel, growth in air travel could be threatened by forthcoming rules that limit global aircraft emissions. Photo: Itsuo Inouye, AP / AP
        FILE – In this Jan. 30, 2009 file photo, a Japan Air Lines staffer checks the biofuel-loaded No. 3 engine of Japan Airlines Boeing 747-300 before a demo flight at Tokyo International Airport in Tokyo. Using blend of 50 percent biofuel and 50 percent traditional Jet-A jet (kerosene) fuel, JAL conducted an hour-long demonstration flight. Many in the industry believe that without a replacement for jet fuel, growth in air travel could be threatened by forthcoming rules that limit global aircraft emissions. Photo: Itsuo Inouye, AP / AP

        NEW YORK — The number of global fliers is expected to more than double in the next two decades. In order to carry all those extra passengers, airlines are turning to a technology very few can make work on a large scale: converting trash into fuel.

        They have no other choice.

        As people in countries such as China, India and Indonesia get wealthier they are increasingly turning to air travel for vacation or business, creating an enormous financial opportunity for the airlines. The number of passengers worldwide could more than double, to 7.3 billion a year, in the next two decades, according to the International Air Transport Association.

        But many in the industry believe that without a replacement for jet fuel, that growth could be threatened by forthcoming rules that limit global aircraft emissions.

        “It’s about retaining, as an industry, our license to grow,” says Julie Felgar, managing director for environmental strategy at plane maker Boeing, which is coordinating sustainable biofuel research programs in the U.S., Australia, China, Brazil, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

        Cars, trucks and trains can run on electricity, natural gas, or perhaps even hydrogen someday to meet emissions rules. But lifting a few hundred people, suitcases and cargo 35,000 feet into the sky and carrying them across a continent requires so much energy that only liquid fuels can do the trick. Fuel from corn, which is easy to make and supplies nearly 10 percent of U.S. auto fuel, doesn’t provide enough environmental benefit to help airlines meet emissions rules.

        “Unlike the ground transport sector, they don’t have a lot of alternatives,” says Debbie Hammel, a bioenergy policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

        That leaves so-called advanced biofuels made from agricultural waste, trash, or specialty crops that humans don’t eat. United Airlines last month announced a $30 million stake in Fulcrum Bioenergy, the biggest investment yet by a U.S. airline in alternative fuels. Fulcrum hopes to build facilities that turn household trash into diesel and jet fuel.

        FedEx, which burns 1.1 billion gallons of jet fuel a year, promised Tuesday to buy 3 million gallons per year of fuel that a company called Red Rock Biofuels hopes to make out of wood waste in Oregon. Southwest Airlines had already agreed to also buy some of Red Rock’s planned output.

        These efforts are tiny next to airlines’ enormous fuel consumption. U.S. airlines burn through 45 million gallons every day. But airlines have little choice but to push biofuels because the industry is already in danger of missing its own emissions goals, and that’s before any regulations now being considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and international agencies.

        The industry’s international trade group has pledged to stop increasing emissions by 2020 even as the number of flights balloons. By 2050, it wants carbon dioxide emissions to be half of what they were in 2005.

        Like airlines, the U.S. military is also supporting development of these fuels for strategic and financial reasons. For biofuels makers, it is a potentially enormous customer: The military is the biggest single energy consumer in the country.

        Making biofuels at large, commercial scale is difficult and dozens of companies have gone belly up trying. The logistics of securing a steady, cheap supply of whatever the fuel is to be made from can take years. Financing a plant is expensive because lenders know the risks and demand generous terms. A sharp drop in the price of crude oil has made competing with traditional fuels on price more difficult.

        The airlines are now seeing some of these difficulties up close. A United program to power regular flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco with fuels made from agricultural waste was delayed when the fuel producer, AltAir, had trouble retrofitting the existing refinery. The companies now say the flights should begin in August. Red Rock’s planned deliveries to Southwest have also been pushed back, to 2017 from 2016, and construction of the plant has not yet started.

        But many in the industry say they are not surprised, or daunted, by the time and effort it will take to bring large amounts of biofuels, at competitive prices, to market.

        “We really are trying to create a brand new fuel industry,” says Boeing’s Felgar. “We’ve always known this is a long term play, and our industry is long term.”

        And if any industry is going to crack fuel from waste on a big scale, the airline industry might be the best bet.

        Instead of having to build the infrastructure to distribute and sell these fuels at hundreds of thousands of gas stations, jet fuel only has to be delivered to a small number of major airports. For example, nearly half of United’s passengers fly through its five hubs in Houston, Chicago, Newark, San Francisco and Denver.

        Still, after the many disappointments that have plagued biofuel development, few want to promise an imminent biofuel revolution. “I’m not Pollyannaish about this,” says Felgar. “I’m not optimistic, I’m not pessimistic, but I’m determined.”

        Share...