Biofuels, Messaging, and Misconceptions

Robert Rapier has a piece yesterday on his own R-Squared Energy Blog and on The Oil Drum bemoaning the claims of greenness made by a woman with 10 old cars and SUVs modified to run on biodiesel and reported in this article in the Daily Mail. The article implies that the woman thinks she is not producing any greenhouse gas emissions or other air pollution and not using any oil.

Rapier points out that putting biodiesel into an old and fuel guzzling car hardly eliminates criteria air pollutants or greenhouse gas emissions, and while he doesn't make the point, I suspect that he would agree that putting biodiesel into an inefficient car is a waste of valuable land. (He makes a particular point about the amount of oil used, which I would and have taken issue with at other points when he has made it. Relatively little petroleum is used in making biofuels relative to the energy content of the biofuels. Mostly it's coal and natural gas that are the fossil fuel sources of energy involved.)

Rapier's core important point is: "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)."

He's particularly right in the policy arena where there's always a strong desire for silver bullets that can score points on multiple political fronts and, oh yeah, solve all our environmental problems too.

My only concern is that we not smack the well intentioned folks that are trying to do their part. NRDC gets asked all the time about biofuels by folks, actors, bands, companies, you name it that are looking to do something. The trick I have found is using their enthusiasm to try to get them to do more significant things such as buy a more efficient car or bus and more importantly to become messengers for the package of measures that are really needed without making them feel bad for having thought about biofuels first. Biofuels can be part of the package, and if they can do more of the package (say walk to work)--good, but if they can call their senator and ask them to increase CAFE standard and support mass transit--great!

Ultimately, helping form an army of fired-up proselytizers calling for the right package of policies is the most important thing that most individuals can do. So I don't care if they get started by greening their dog shampoo, freezing in the dark with a Jimmy Carter cardigan, or switching to biodiesel. Rather than berate them, let's enlist them. 

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