On Tuesday, members of the European Parliament voted by a huge margin to approve a resolution calling for the EU to phase out the use of vegetable oils, including palm oil, in biofuel by 2020. While 97 percent of the Parliament voted for the measure, the plan will not take affect until it is approved by the European Commission.
Nevertheless, the vote sends a signal that what was once a European biofuels boom has started to fade as more policymakers are aware of the social and ecological costs. Although environmentalists agree that plant-based fuels burn cleaner at the pipe, the concerns over biofuels’ ties to environmental destruction, human rights violations and impact on food prices have dampened the enthusiasm over what was once seen as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
A decade ago, the EU viewed biofuels as key to the region’s goal to source 10 percent of its transport fuel from petroleum alternatives. But critics say the heavy price has been the loss of as many as 1 million hectares of tropical soils, with deforestation rampant across countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. One study suggested that when accounting for the loss of carbon sinks such as peatlands, paired with the destruction of forests, biodiesel from vegetable-based oils on average produced 80 percent more emissions than fossil fuels.
So, could a similar movement happen here in the U.S., where the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program has resulted in a surge of biofuels sourced from corn and soy? RFS, which has its origins in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, expanded under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 as a tactic to reduce American dependence on foreign sources of energy. But that program helped to ignite a food-versus-fuel debate as opponents say land could be used to grow food instead of crops – and advances in electric vehicle technology could eventually eliminate the growing need for corn ethanol or soy diesel.
Oddly enough, opponents of the RFS could find allies in the Donald Trump White House, despite the administration’s determination to ramp up domestic fossil fuel production.
“The RFS was sold to many of us as necessary for energy independence,” said Rose Garr, a campaign director with the NGO Mighty Earth. “The rationale was that biofuels would be cleaner and reduce the need for foreign oil. But no one really thought about how much land is needed to source this fuel, or how many crops are displaced in order to fill our tank.”
One outcome is the perverse reality that the U.S. is now importing more biodiesel from abroad. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) says that such imports rose by 916 million gallons, a 65 percent increase from the previous year. Almost two-thirds of biodiesel imports come from Argentina, which doubled its exports of soy-based biodiesel between 2015 and 2016. NGOs such as Mighty and WWF are concerned that America's thirst for biodiesel, as well as its demand for cattle feed, have resulted in deforestation across much of Argentina’s chaco and Yungas forests as trees are felled in order to cultivate soybeans.
Interestingly enough, the growing movement to put the brakes on the production and import of biofuels has formed in what Garr described as “the strange bedfellows coalition.”
This motley crew is comprised of organizations and businesses that are all over the map: environmental organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club; anti-hunger advocacy groups led by Oxfam; meat producers including the National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation; and oil companies represented by the powerful American Petroleum Institute.
Some of these groups object to the growing use of land for cultivating fuel crops instead of food. Others say the rising cost of animal feed is hurting their businesses while driving food prices up – even while the prices of commodities have largely fallen over the past few years. Oil companies, of course, see a threat to their market, but also point out that far too much conservation land has become dedicated to monocultures of soy and corn.
While these disparate groups all have varying objectives, if they can truly find common ground, they could find a willing ear in the White House. While many environmentalists fear that Donald Trump’s drive to throw the baby out with the bathwater could result in even greater harm to the world's climate, Garr is hopeful that a change in the RFS could pose some positive environmental and social benefits. “[Trump] has surrounded himself with advisors close to oil and gas interests that are opposed to the renewable fuel standard, so that could possibly help our cause,” she explained.
The oil industry is correct when it points out that the increase in soy and corn plantings over the past decade in part created the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, harming marine life and decimating local fishing industries. The trick is finding alignment with Mighty and other environmental groups. “Ultimately, we want to see vehicles electrified, that in turn are connected to a grid powered by renewable energy,” Garr said as she wrapped up her telephone interview with 3p.
Ultimately, American policymakers have little in common with their friends across the Atlantic, but the reality on both continents is clear. “If we are putting corn and soy into our tank, it is increasingly clear that this fuel will have to come from somewhere else other than a local farm,” Garr concluded.
Image credit: Wolfgang Lonien/Flickr