Fighting for sustainability
Group with celebrity ties hopes to spread the word on benefits of community-based biodiesel production
by Susan Reidy
As long-time supporters of biodiesel, Daryl Hannah, Annie Nelson and Kelly King said they were appalled to witness the industry morph from one that promotes farmers and energy independence to one dominated by corporate globalization efforts.
Hoping to increase awareness of sustainable biodiesel and promote responsible production, the trio formed the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance (SBA). The group believes sustainable production includes a community-based model for production, where local companies use regionally grown or collected feedstock to produce fuel for the surrounding area.
“Biodiesel was a way to help save the family farmer, to help save our air quality, our economy and get independence from foreign oil — all these beautiful attributes,” Hannah said in an interview with Biofuels Business. “Now, the majority of the big investors are doing the exact opposite.”
The ultimate goal of the non-profit organization is to create best practice standards for verifying that all points in the production and distribution chain comply with SBA’s certification standards. SBA has grown to include family farmers and farm organizations, the Institute for Agriculture Trade and Policy, members of the 25 x 25 Group, environmental organizations, renewable energy researchers, biodiesel industry experts and others.
“We did such a good job of promoting biodiesel, that now we needed to help people understand the difference between sustainable and unsustainable,” said Annie Nelson, director of the group and wife of singer/activist Willie Nelson.
Shortly after the three formed SBA, issues such as food vs. fuel and deforestation related to increased biofuels production started garnering lots of media attention.
“It kind of hit the industry smack dab in the face,” said King, a board member of SBA and founder of Pacific Biodiesel in Kahului, Hawaii, U.S. “The SBA is a way to address these issues, instead of pretending they’re not happening.”
SBA promotes a model of production in which community-based production facilities make biodiesel using feedstocks from that region. The fuel is then used within the community.
“Rather than have a few centralized companies or large corporations making all of the fuel, we would have many, many community-based ones,” she said. “Everyone involved can make a living, everyone has a bit of profit, the communities are supported, the farmers are supported, local fuel producers and distributors are supported and it’s socially responsible.”
It’s a production model that Pacific Biodiesel has followed since it started making biodiesel more than 12 years ago. The company was started in 1995 in response to environmental and health concerns surrounding large quantities of used cooking oil at the Central Maui Landfill. Pacific Biodiesel used the waste cooking oil to create biodiesel to run generators at the landfill. The company now has two plants in Hawaii and has built 10 plants on the U.S. mainland and in Japan.
“We’re selling our fuel 90 cents cheaper than petroleum in Hawaii. We’re not basing our prices on the price of oil in the Middle East or the price of diesel downtown,” King said. “We’re basing it on our production costs. It’s the only product in Hawaii that is organic and saving the earth, that costs less.”
People who believe community-based production isn’t possible are those who look at biodiesel as a silver bullet cure to the world’s energy needs, King said. Biodiesel is one part of the renewable energy solution. With that mindset, and subsidies that would benefit small businesses participating in the industry, a community-based approach is certainly possible.
“The subsidies we have now are creating a model that is destroying the rain forest because it benefits massive import/export models,” King said. “Last year the U.S. exported 50% of our biodiesel production, yet we’re still importing diesel fuel. What’s wrong with that picture?”
The SBA has created draft principles which it said are a first step toward identifying the key sustainability concerns around biofuels, especially biodiesel production. The principles could serve as a basis for standards and criteria for a biodiesel certification process or as a framework for drafting more specific codes of practice for sustainable biodiesel production and use.
The principles cover environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions; impacts on soil, water and air; biodiversity conservation; and agrochemicals. Social issues covered include food security; local communities; farmers; workers; and local consumption priorities.
Hannah said the SBA will help consumers differentiate between people who are producing biodiesel in a sustainable, ethical way and those who are not.
“This will allow producers who are trying to make biodiesel in an ethical way benefit from their efforts,” she said.
Nelson stressed that the SBA’s model is one that is sustainable long-term. Right now, the greenest thing about the industry as it stands is the money going into a few people’s pockets.
“It is not a sustainable model and it doesn’t even serve the people in this country because half of it is shipped outside,” Nelson said.
Addressing sustainable production
Several groups throughout the world have recognized the importance of sustainable biofuels production, and are adopting those practices in policies and processes.
The Inter-American Development Bank’s Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Initiative (SECCI) announced in April that is partnering with Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels to integrate the Roundtable’s sustainability principles into its lending.
SECCI plans to test the principles in five projects and co-host four regional stakeholder meetings to ensure that Latin American stakeholders are helping to write these global rules for biofuel sustainability. Biofuels have the potential to create economic opportunities in rural areas, the SECCI said, but without safeguards, some biofuels can have negative impacts. These include clearing valuable forests and wildlife habitats for cropland, using scarce water and reducing the amount of land available for food production, the group said.
“The Bank is committed to lending to projects that ensure sustainable development,” said Juan Pablo Bonilla, coordinator of SECCI and former deputy minister of environment for Colombia. “We are excited about testing the standards being developed in the Roundtable in real projects we are supporting, to ensure that they are contributing to our vision of a sustainable energy future.”
The European Commission, in drafting its plan to include at least 10% biofuels in transportation fuels by 2020, included strict sustainability standards. The commission’s directive says biofuels must achieve a minimum level of greenhouse gas savings and respect several requirements related to biodiversity.
The goal is to prevent the use of land with biodiversity value, such as forests and protected areas, for the production of biofuels’ feedstocks.
In the U.S., the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) announced in February the creation of a Sustainability Task Force to ensure that “the U.S. biodiesel industry continues to protect the environment, while producing jobs and reducing dependence on foreign oil.
The 10-member volunteer board includes small and large biodiesel producers, distributors, feedstock suppliers and farmers. The group will oversee the development and implementation of a sustainability roadmap that will quantify and maximize the environmental and social benefits of biodiesel; ensure that biodiesel produced and sold in the U.S. comes from sustainable resources; ensure that the best environmental and safety practices are followed in production; develop mechanisms to encourage responsible use of the world’s resources; and discourage the use of non-sustainable agriculture practices worldwide in biodiesel production.