Peak Oil News: Worse Than Fossil Fuel

Friday, December 16, 2005

Worse Than Fossil Fuel

By George Monbiot

Biodiesel enthusiasts have accidentally invented the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth.

Over the past two years I have made an uncomfortable discovery. Like most environmentalists, I have been as blind to the constraints affecting our energy supply as my opponents have been to climate change. I now realise that I have entertained a belief in magic.

In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter “containing 44×10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet’s current biota.”(1) In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries’ worth of plants and animals.

The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy – and the extraordinary power densities it gives us – with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back. But substitutes are being sought everywhere. They are being promoted today at the climate talks in Montreal, by states – such as ours – which seek to avoid the hard decisions climate change demands. And at least one of them is worse than the fossil fuel burning it replaces.

The last time I drew attention to the hazards of making diesel fuel from vegetable oils, I received as much abuse as I have ever been sent by the supporters of the Iraq war. The biodiesel missionaries, I discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as the executives of Exxon. I am now prepared to admit that my previous column was wrong. But they’re not going to like it. I was wrong because I underestimated the fuel’s destructive impact.

Before I go any further, I should make it clear that turning used chip fat into motor fuel is a good thing. The people slithering around all day in vats of filth are perfoming a service to society. But there is enough waste cooking oil in the UK to meet one 380th of our demand for road transport fuel(2). Beyond that, the trouble begins.

When I wrote about it last year, I thought that the biggest problem caused by biodiesel was that it set up a competition for land(3). Arable land that would otherwise have been used to grow food would instead be used to grow fuel. But now I find that something even worse is happening. The biodiesel industry has accidentally invented the world’s most carbon-intensive fuel.

In promoting biodiesel – as the European Union, the British and US governments and thousands of environmental campaigners do – you might imagine that you are creating a market for old chip fat, or rapeseed oil, or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality you are creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth.

Last week, the chairman of Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority announced that he was about to build a new biodiesel plant(4). His was the ninth such decision in four months. Four new refineries are being built in Peninsula Malaysia, one in Sarawak and two in Rotterdam(5). Two foreign consortia – one German, one American – are setting up rival plants in Singapore(6). All of them will be making biodiesel from the same source: oil from palm trees.

“The demand for biodiesel,” the Malaysian Star reports, “will come from the European Community … This fresh demand … would, at the very least, take up most of Malaysia’s crude palm oil inventories”(7). Why? Because it’s cheaper than biodiesel made from any other crop.

In September, Friends of the Earth published a report about the impacts of palm oil production. “Between 1985 and 2000,” it found, “the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia”(8). In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest has been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares is scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5m in Indonesia.

Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil planters. The orang-utan is likely to become extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist(9). The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.

Before oil palms, which are small and scrubby, are planted, vast forest trees, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be felled and burnt. Having used up the drier lands, the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests, which grow on peat. When they’ve cut the trees, the planters drain the ground. As the peat dries it oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria.

The British government understands this. In the report it published last month, when it announced that it will obey the European Union and ensure that 5.75% of our transport fuel comes from plants by 2010, it admitted that “the main environmental risks are likely to be those concerning any large expansion in biofuel feedstock production, and particularly in Brazil (for sugar cane) and South East Asia (for palm oil plantations).”(10) It suggested that the best means of dealing with the problem was to prevent environmentally destructive fuels from being imported. The government asked its consultants whether a ban would infringe world trade rules. The answer was yes: “mandatory environmental criteria … would greatly increase the risk of international legal challenge to the policy as a whole”(11). So it dropped the idea of banning imports, and called for “some form of voluntary scheme” instead(12). Knowing that the creation of this market will lead to a massive surge in imports of palm oil, knowing that there is nothing meaningful it can do to prevent them, and knowing that they will accelarate rather than ameliorate climate change, the government has decided to go ahead anyway.

At other times it happily defies the European Union. But what the EU wants and what the government wants are the same. “It is essential that we balance the increasing demand for travel,” the government’s report says, “with our goals for protecting the environment”(13). Until recently, we had a policy of reducing the demand for travel. Now, though no announcement has been made, that policy has gone. Like the Tories in the early 1990s, the Labour administration seeks to accommodate demand, however high it rises. Figures obtained last week by the campaigning group Road Block show that for the widening of the M1 alone the government will pay £3.6 billion – more than it is spending on its entire climate change programme(14). Instead of attempting to reduce demand, it is trying to alter supply. It is prepared to sacrifice the South East Asian rainforests in order to be seen to do something, and to allow motorists to feel better about themselves.

All this illustrates the futility of the technofixes now being pursued in Montreal. Trying to meet a rising demand for fuel is madness, wherever the fuel might come from. The hard decisions have been avoided, and another portion of the biosphere is going up in smoke.


1. Jeffrey S. Dukes, 2003. Burning Buried Sunshine: Human Consumption Of Ancient Solar Energy. Climatic Change 61: 31-44.

2. The British Association for Biofuels and Oils estimates the volume at 100,000 tonnes a year. BABFO, no date. Memorandum to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.


4. Tamimi Omar, 1st December 2005. Felda to set up largest biodiesel plant. The Edge Daily.

5. See e.g. Zaidi Isham Ismail, 7th November 2005. IOI to go it alone on first biodiesel plant.  No author, 25th November 2005.

Hope nine-month profit hits RM841mil.  No author, 26th November 2005.

Hope to invest RM40mil for biodiesel plant in Netherlands.  No author, 23rd November 2005.

Malaysia IOI Eyes Green Energy Expansion in Europe.

6. Loh Kim Chin, 26th October 2005. Singapore to host two biodiesel plants, investments total over S$80m. Channel NewsAsia.

7. C.S. Tan, 6th October 2005. All Plantation Stocks Rally.

8. Friends of the Earth et al, September 2005. The Oil for Ape Scandal: how palm oil is threatening orang-utan survival. Research report.

9. ibid.

10. Department for Transport, November 2005. Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) feasibility report. roads_610329-01.hcsp#P18_263

11. E4Tech, ECCM and Imperial College, London, June 2005. Feasibility Study on Certification for a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation. Final Report.

12. Department for Transport, ibid.

13. ibid.


At 1:27 PM, December 16, 2005, Anonymous Terry said...

There are tons of farms throughout industrialized countries that can be made into producers for bio-diesel, as opposed to using the land for residential or industrial purposes.

Forests are going to be cleared for many purposes, such as in the rainforests of South America.

While it is a concern, I think this guy is mostly blowing smoke.

At 10:29 AM, December 17, 2005, Anonymous rkelly said...

This is the problem.

Again, the people who should be opening their eyes to see and listening with the intuition that speaks the truth, so the ears can actually hear what the hell is going on -- well, instead we get people who think that "this guy is mostly blowing smoke".

Sad, sad, sad.

George Monbiot for christsake Terry, is NO "this guy".

Terry, please take a minute out of your schedule and pay attention to someone you should be respecting as a citizen of nature who is giving you one of the greatest gifts of this century -- time and the information -- to wake up and hopefully, be prepared!

But, rather than spending the next four years behaving as rational human beings and waking up the collective unconscious so we can problem solve -- no, instead, we have people like Terry who continue to be "true believers", drinking the Kook Aid and leaping empty handed into the void, ass up and elbows down, just like all good little lemmings do, and all the while "leaders", blowing smoke, all the way to the bank.

Hugo Chavez is the ONLY POLITICIAN at this time who is telling the truth like it is: Conservation, for all nations, continents and peoples. Period.

godsmadmen dot com
and atelier3151 dot com / roberta and I want to scream about the Polar Bears drowning.

Just wait Terry, until the real smoke is being blown into your a-- as THE cosmic reality enema.

At 7:07 AM, December 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was a mucky-muck in a few big oil companies I used to get proposals from Terry-type nit-wits to do good stuff for the environment. Let me give you one simple example.

A city in northern Canada undertook a federally-sponsored forestation project (planting trees) to act as carbon sinks. If we put up half a million dollars, the feds would do the same and the town would be able to:

Hire a tree-digger to trample a hundred little trees and a few big ones in near-by boreal rain forests to dig up a tree

Haul the tree with a sulphur-belching diesel truck 25 miles and dig another hole destroying an amount of grass that would otherwise have captured 10 times as much carbon in a year than the nearly-dead transplante tree

Plop the tree in the hole and then haul water for five years with the same stinky trucks to keep only 20% oof the re-planted trees alive

Of course repeat the process overand over to honor the lifespan guarantee until 100% of the contracted number of trees lived a full year.

To come up with the idiodic scheme a score of experts travelled a score of times by gas-guzzling devices to meetings in heated buildings and drives to the blessed sites of all this ruin.

And so on.

We did not buy in of course but others did.

I will never forget the pasty-faced nit-wits looking with camel-like pomp at we simple folk who could not see the merit in their wisdom, refused the program.

Please believe me, this sort of thing happens over and over with spoiled brats who think of themselves as protectors of great causes .

Damn them all!

At 10:58 AM, December 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have a moronic penchant in Canada, for emotional support of stupid ideas. It is as though a lie is not a lie if it is told in support of a good cause.

Making methanol from agriculture is a classic. I and others with the objectivity and tecghnical capability to do so, have proven over and over that the full-cycle impact on environment to generate one gigajoule of energy in this manner is far worse than the petroleum equivalent. Also, in most instances the parasitic energy loss (what you burn to produce what you get) in many instances nets no gain and in effect has misled farmers putting about digging themselves into an mathematical energy hole.

Still the "pasty-faced nit-wits" as one commenter called them, get all charmed with and defensive about this dumb idea.

In Canada one fuel marketer that sells the stuff in its gasoline has commercials with birds twittering away in the background as consumers pump this rubbish into their brains and their fuel tanks.

I thought this was the age of enlightenment!

At 1:28 PM, December 18, 2005, Anonymous rkelly said...

Oh my God – in heaven, earth, sun, moon, all the planets, stars, and whatever – animate and even all the inanimate energy sources!

Real thinking people with genuine grey matter firing synapses that connect and thinking becomes real and reality is clearly an ongoing problem to be solved.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, and this does not include the NONthinking.

I sent Ms. Huffington an email yesterday. She invited discourse from "women who are fearless" to talk about themselves and other women, who had faced fear(s) and overcome them. Unfortunately, it was about Ms. H writing a book about nonsensical fears: For example, how to not be devastated, when as a woman, we are told that we are not "a team player".

Sweet baby jesus and holy christ almighty!

Is there any real hope that these people who have millions and millions of dollars, can grow the gene of altruism and do something significant during these looming genuine fearful times?

You say, "I thought this was the age of enlightenment"!

goddamnit, its enlightenment alright -- for those of us who get it -- to know how dangerous a world its going to be when those who do NOT get it (read the tripe of the haves), start to wake up and its another five years of a blur with the Black Gold War Lords in control.

The most sick thing coming up is the Newsweek honor of people who are important. It seems that Bill and Melinda Gates flew in their private jet to an obscure location in India to visit women who received small business loans from the Gates Foundation, to sell goods to make money.

I vote for a Conservation Act that demands: All people who have private jet airplanes, and are refusing to be conscious conservationists, to be one with Polar Bears and all other life forms who cannot protect its environment from the greed of consumerism.



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