Last weekend, my cousin’s husband stopped in at my place to look at a car that I want to sell. He popped the hood and we talked about the car for a while, and then we caught up on family news over a couple of beers. It had been some time since we’d last talked, so he asked what I was doing these days. I told him I’m the editor of two monthly magazines centered on renewable fuels and chemicals. He sort of scoffed, and I knew we were going to get into “the discussion.” He led into our talk about biofuels with ethanol, citing the usual arguments: Why do we as citizens put up with mandatory use of ethanol, a fuel that costs more per gallon and decreases mileage, he asked. I knew right from the beginning this was going to be a tough sell. When I told him ethanol blending in most cases lowers the cost of gasoline per gallon, he asked if that were still the case without government subsidies. I knew then he was not going to be convinced easily, but his point of view, unfortunately, is not uncommon. The mainstream population has been fed this anti-biofuels propaganda for years by the oil and gas lobby and, more discouragingly, by those who do the lobby’s work without pay or benefit: the average rank-and-file Joe, who is misinformed about the merits of biofuels and spreads that misinformation as truth. I asked him if he knew about oil and gas subsidies he as a taxpayer is funding, to which he responded no. I asked him if, instead of sending untold billions, even trillions, of dollars to foreign governments whose agendas include collapsing western culture, would he support retaining at least some of that money within our own borders where it creates jobs, fuel, tax money and investment in the future; and his response was that we can produce enough of our own oil if the government would ease drilling restrictions. When I asked him if he realized oil was a finite material and when it’s gone, it’s gone, he shifted the argument to food crop displacement. My visitor had never heard of distillers grains and its role in the food vs. fuel debate, or how corn oil is being extracted from distillers grains to make biodiesel—our next topic. He said when his company’s trucks started running on biodiesel a few years ago, many of them had troubles. I asked how long ago this was, and mentioned some of the quality issues present early on and the achievements made in improving the quality standard. He did concede that the switch to ultra-low sulfur diesel has caused some technical issues in diesel and biodiesel blends, so all of his blame was not placed squarely on biodiesel. Our discussion then advanced to next-generation biofuels and biobased chemicals. He hadn’t really heard anything about second-gen fuels, and all he said about biobased chemicals was “they need improvement.” I gave him a couple of issues of Biorefining Magazine and asked him to take them with when he left.
The point of my relaying this to readers is two-fold. One, we should always be prepared to discuss the merits of first- and second-generation biofuels and biobased chemicals with those who see them through a very narrow, tainted scope. And two, no matter what, the issues of cost, subsidization, performance, quality and availability, among others, will remain paramount as the next-generation of biofuels and biobased chemicals develop and are forced to endure the same old arguments as their predecessors. The advantage we have is 30-plus years of lessons learned.
Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biorefining Magazine