Biodiesel Misconceptions

Sometimes I am astonished at the misconceptions people have. Take this article:

Old cars become green machines

The story is about a woman who has a number of cars that have been modified to run off of biodiesel. The cars include gas guzzlers like a Lincoln Continental Mark V, a Chevy Tahoe, and a Cadillac. But because she is running them on biodiesel, she thinks she is neither using oil nor polluting:

Colette Brooks’ sprawling ocean-view property* is dotted with tricked out cars — from a low-rider Lincoln Continental to a Cadillac with plush leather seats. The petite 49-year-old business owner might be a car junkie, but she’s indulging her obsession without polluting the air by running her rides on biodiesel and other alternative fuels.

“I feel so superior driving next to a Hummer and going, ‘Dude, yo, look at this, this is what you should be doing,’ ” Brooks said.

While I sincerely appreciate her intent, someone walking, riding a bike, or even driving a Prius running entirely on gasoline could say the same to her. She does not recognize that her fossil fuel footprint is still very high. The problem with these sorts of perceptions is that they end up shaping policy. People may not recognize the critical need for conservation if they think they have eliminated their fossil fuel usage by switching to biodiesel (or corn-ethanol).

Today, at least 10 vehicles are parked on her property in Malibu. They include the Lincoln Continental Mark V designed by the late fashion designer Bill Blass. The gold luxury coupe has tinted windows to give it a “gangsta” look, Brooks said.

Her Chevy Tahoe demonstrates that it’s possible to drive a jumbo SUV without fouling the air. And with an increasing number of filling stations in Southern California selling biodiesel, motorists don’t have to go too far out of their way to feed their green machines.

A Los Angeles architect who got his 1980 Mercedes coupe from Biobling boasted that he hasn’t bought gasoline in nearly a year. Though he spends about $3.29 per gallon for biodiesel, Warren Wagner said he didn’t mind paying more for fuel that’s produced domestically.

“I’m not supporting big oil,” Wagner said. “When I’m driving it around, my car is an ambassador for alternative transportation.”

I wonder where they think the gasoline and diesel that the soybean farmers use comes from. How was the biodiesel transported to the filling station? Where did the plastics and rubber in all of those vehicles came from? Where did the methanol come from that is used to make the biodiesel? Biodiesel is certainly better than corn ethanol in this respect, but don’t kid yourself that you aren’t using oil or polluting if you are using biodiesel.

So, while I applaud the effort, I think a better recognition of the actual embedded fossil fuels might lead to more informed decisions about which actions are more environmentally responsible. When the oil starts to run scarce, some people are going to have a rude awakening to the fact they are far more dependent upon oil than they think. This article provides a perfect example of people who suffer from such oil delusions, and it is the same kind of delusional thinking displayed by our political leaders. “Renewable fuels” with heavy fossil fuel inputs are not truly renewable, nor are they non-polluting.

I can’t help but be reminded of the article I read regarding the Hummer owner who was “kicking the oil habit” because his Hummer ran on E85. A Prius running on 100% fossil fuels is going to have a lower fossil fuel footprint than a Chevy Tahoe running on biodiesel or a Hummer running on ethanol. A Prius running on biodiesel (or green diesel); well that’s potentially a different matter.

* For the purposes of this essay, I shall not discuss the possible energy footprint of that sprawling property. I will presume it is not powered by coal.

11 thoughts on “Biodiesel Misconceptions”

  1. On the other hand, since she isn’t buying new cars she isn’t contributing to further pollution in the manufacturing of new vehicles. I tend to consider the impact of vehicles from birth to death, not just how much fuel they burn. You’ll have to dispose of those batteries in that Prius somehow. And while I have no doubts that the gas engine while last for 200-300,000 miles, the battery pack will not. Will people keep their Prius outside of the warranty period and use it as a pure gas fuel efficient vehicle? Its a good idea, especially if you remove the battery packs saving weight and making the car more efficient. Whether the hybrid drive system will like or allow that is another story.

    I have a few older cars, and the energy and carbon footprint required to keep them on the road is far less than buying a new vehicle even every 10 years. And junkyards are one of the first forms of modern-day recycling that actually works.

    I have a diesel 240D, but it still runs petro-diesel. I’m not convinced that bio-diesel or waste vegetable oil is good for the long-term health of the engine. Peruse the forums that are bio-hype, and you’ll find reports of clogged injectors from WVO that hasn’t been pre-heated.

  2. This drives me crazy as well. When traditional energy companies try to do things that will really make a difference in environmental benefits, the media and environmentalists heap huge portions of scorn on us. When some California looney tune makes totally bogus claims, people swoon over how much she “cares” about the environment.

    My opinion is that she and her hubby should be sued for false advertising. Their website Biobling says:

    “you can express your individuality with a pre-owned green machine that doesn’t rely on fossil fuel, doesn’t pollute the environment and helps support U.S. job growth.”

    There is no way these vehicles don’t pollute.

    The environmental movement is the new home for charlatains, hucksters, con artists. Oh but I’m sorry, we can’t call these people liars because they “care” about the environment and they have “progressive” political views.

    Speaking of giant hypocrites, what is Mr. Gore up to lately: Mr. Gore travels to California

    A Gulfstream II? One trip from Tennessee to CA is a year’s worth of of CO2 emissions for the average family. Unbelievable.

  3. We caught a ride home with one of our neighbors a few nights ago. As we rode in the car she wanted to show it off to us. It was her brand new Lexus Hybrid SUV. She showed us the display and it said she was getting 27 miles per gallon. She beamed with pride.

    “See, it isn’t emitting any greenhouse gases. And it gets good mileage too.”

    She is definitely not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I kept my mouth shut. There is no point trying to explain the obvious.

  4. “Actually, someone walking, riding a bike…”

    Let’s see. Using your skewed logic in energy calculations, not really.

    Why, because we have to factor in all of the calories taken in by the biker. And all of the energy it took for the tofu, soy milk, and organic foods to be produced. And all of the energy it took for those workers to hunch over in the fields. No, walking and biking just isn’t very energy efficient.

  5. “skewed logic in energy calculations”

    What is skewed about pointing out that people don’t really understand how dependent on fossil fuels that their biofuels really are?

    “No, walking and biking just isn’t very energy efficient.”

    Energy efficiency is relative. When the lady says Yo dude, you should be like me because I am not polluting she obviously doesn’t appreciate that she is in fact using oil, and a fair amount, which I gather was teh point. People have these wrong impressions and thats w hy we get some of the policy decisions we see.

  6. zatYes, there is a lot of educating to do.
    On the other hand, many people in Los Angeles are driving cars which run on vegetable oil taken from restaurants. They have heaters and filters in their older model Mercedes and other diesels. I see one guy often, and he claims to have put 100,000 miles on his US-made van, which smells like popcorn, and he has never pulled into a gas station.
    Obviously, they still pollute the air.
    I think RR is right, that the way to go is PHEVs, which offer clean air as a huge benefit, and which are powered domestically, another huge benefit in a world in which thug states control the oil.
    I understand what freetraders think, but can we really rely on Chavez, and Maliki, and Ahmadinijad, and Putin to keep us in oil? Oh yes, I forgot Khadaffi.
    Biodiesel only makes sense if we can truly make algae to oil, or if jatropha pans out, or if we run PHEVs, and use radically reduced amounts of biofuels.

  7. The first Anonymous says that Prius batteries will not last 200-300,000 miles, yet some already have. shows one at 316,884 miles on the original battery. And a taxi driver is on his third Prius now. Toyota took back the first one at about 200,000 miles and the second one at about 240,000 miles, not because the batteries needed to be replaced, but just to study how the batteries withstand real life use.

    That said, I agree about the impact of new vehicles, so although we plan for our next car to be a Prius, for now we’re still using our 11 and 18 year old cars, both which have just over 150,000 miles and get about 27 mpg. Not as good as the 45-55 mpg our Prius-owning friends get. For people who live where cars rust out or otherwise get totalled before they get anywhere near 150,000 miles, any battery life over 150,000 miles is irrelevant.

    On biodiesel, I understand RR’s astonishment that people think biodiesel and ethanol use no fossil fuel in their production, but what gets me is that some people equate carbon-neutral to pollution-free. Biodiesel exhaust may put out less particulate matter and hydrocarbons than petro-diesel, but it still puts out some, and also puts out more smog-forming NOx. E85 fueling is also worse than regular gasoline for smog. These kinds of emissions are of concern to people with asthma. Biodiesel and ethanol (even if no fossil fuel was used in production) still pollute the air.

  8. My God, the smug has spread to Malibu! Smug Alert!

    Come on People now, People Now;
    People now, Come on People now.
    Got to drive hybrids people now, people now, people now, people now
    Hybrids are for people now, people now,
    Good for people driving people now, get a hybrid be good people now

    We have all got to be people now, people driving hybrid people now;
    people now people now hybrid now,
    Hybrid people driving people now
    Come on people lets be people now, hybrid people driving people now
    Come on everybody be people now. Come on everybody be people now.

  9. on bikes and food and greenhouse gases … it depends.

    in my calculations I came up with 684 mpg (biodiesel equivalent) for a bicycle.

    as the commentator above notes, the way you eat or drink those calories will have impacts … but we could easily sort out the best and worst case. best case … eat a peach off the tree in the back yard? worst case … eat some endangered and energy intensive sashimi?

    but if you go for the raw fish, it’s hardly the bicycle’s fault.

    (other people come up with values very close to my 684 mpg, using a wide range of calculations)

  10. I’d like your comments on this article that claims No contest: Biodiesel bests petroleum diesel by Randy Olson executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board.

    Lastly, in terms of reducing our dependence on foreign oil, consider the results of the Biodiesel Lifecycle Inventory Study, published by the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The study compared findings for a comprehensive “cradle to grave” inventory of materials used by petroleum-diesel fuels and biodiesel, energy resources consumed, and air, water and solid waste emissions generated. This three-and-a-half-year study found that for every unit of energy that goes into making petroleum-diesel fuel, only 0.88 of a unit is gained, for a negative energy balance. That’s similar to investing at a negative interest rate, or investing $1 and getting $0.88 in return.

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