When Green is Brown

Sacramento is the capital of California, a state that is world-renowned for its concern for the environment. As such, the Sacramento region is attracting businesses and investors from around the world, eager to capitalize on Sacramento’s enthusiastic embrace of green industry. But sometimes green is brown.

At the Port of Sacramento, a start-up company based in Long Beach has already gotten its first go-ahead from the governing board of the Port of Sacramento to build a biodiesel plant, that, according to the Sacramento Bee, “will make 60 million gallons a year of the alternative fuel.” Can you smell the rainforests burning?

Situated on 14 acres of land in the middle of this deep water port, this refinery will receive cargos of biofuel feedstock from all over the world. But let’s put this into perspective – Californian’s consume 700 million barrels of petroleum each year, which equates to 29.4 billion gallons of fuel. So this new biodiesel refinery, ten times larger than anything built in California to-date, at best will offset two-tenths of one percent of California’s demand for petroleum. But where will all of this biodiesel feedstock come from?

The best source yet known for biodiesel oil is from oil palms, which yield about 10,000 barrels of oil per square mile per year. This equates to 420,000 gallons of oil, which means that providing feedstock to this plant will require the destruction of 150 square miles of rainforest – and that’s best case.

In terms of land required to grow biofuel, the calculations for biodiesel and bioethanol are roughly equivalent. That is, the best-case feedstock for bioethanol is sugar cane, and yields are approximately 10,000 barrels per square mile per year, the same as for oil palms and biodiesel. These sorts of yields are only available in the tropics – in North America, using corn, the yields per square mile are only about half as good. So if you rely on biofuels to offset 100% of California’s petroleum consumption, instead of two-tenths of one percent, you will have to destroy 75,000 square miles of rainforest. That’s just for California.

To supply the entire world with biofuel instead of petroleum, best case, you would have to destroy 2.9 million square miles of tropical rainforest – which is, coincidentally, about all we’ve got left of these rainforest’s original 8.0 million square miles.

Biodiesel and bioethanol make sense if they are derived from municipal waste streams (feedlots, landfills, etc.), or if the crops are grown in arid regions (very low yields) to combat desertification, or if they are produced in factory reactors. Read “Biofuel Certification” for more about this, and read “Reforest the Tropics” for more information on the role tropical deforestation has on climate change.

Before Sacramento deserves its reputation as the green capital of the world, they will have to quit endorsing every proposal that feels green but is actually brown.

4 Responses to “When Green is Brown”
  1. Brian Hayes says:

    You have the most healthy balance of curiosity and scepticism of all energy bloggers!

    When capturing fashionable opportunism we can step toward a sensible balance.

    BTW, there’s a thorough article at LitmusZine you will enjoy methinks, called What We Don’t Know About Global Warming….

  2. Really good article! I recommended it to my subscribers at EvidenceSoup.com — it’s great to see someone explaining the complex, hard choices that lay ahead. You’ve offered lots of useful evidence here.

  3. A burden of one’s choice is not felt

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