With Biofuels, Better Is Better

If you have read this blog in the past, you know I firmly believe we can curb global warming with the help of a long list of clean energy technologies. But a recent article in the New York Times about pollution from biodiesel plants reminds us that all energy production--whether it is conventional or marketed as green--needs environmental oversight.

The article described how hazardous discharges from several plants that make biodiesel out of soybean oil have polluted streams in Iowa, Missouri, and Alabama. In one incident, an anonymous caller tipped off officials that a tanker truck was dumping “milky white goop” into a waterway. The goop turned out to be from a biodiesel plant and it killed 25,000 fish. 

It doesn’t matter if toxic goop comes from an oil refinery or a biofuels refinery. Pollution is pollution and needs to be halted.

As NRDC’s biofuels expert Nathanael Greene has said, current federal biofuels policies reward volume. They assume that more is better. That kind of thinking has created a frenzied rush to build hasty and sometimes unpermitted refineries.

But not all biofuels are created equal: some produce more global warming emissions than they save. Some result in the polluted streams and dead fish described in the New York Times article. Some degrade crop lands with excessive pesticide use.

So rather than thinking that more is better, it’s about thinking that better is better. Biofuels that are made with better, safer, more sustainable practices are the fuels that should get the tax credits and incentives.

This is not a simple process. Biofuels are quite possibly the most complicated renewable energy source to produce in an environmentally friendly way. Never mind the politics of this issue; we still have a host of engineering challenges to work out. 

But at the same time, we most certainly need biofuels if we are going to combat global warming. The key is to put rigorous environmental standards in place that favor green performance and penalize pollution and degradation.

There is a lot of money to be made in the biofuels market, but not all of that green will come from green practices. NRDC’s staff--from our biofuels and vehicles experts to our land and water teams--is vigilantly tracking this burgeoning industry. We are drafting and helping pass the policies that will reward only the cleanest producers.