According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, biodiesel constitutes only a fraction—less than 1%—of diesel fuel use, although that percentage is growing. In 2006, about 250 million gallons were used. In 2009, that number had more than doubled, to 545 million gallons. The irony is that the more this eco-friendly option is used—requiring large-scale production—the less eco-friendly it will likely be. Scaling up production means tapping into either virgin plant oils, like soy or palm, or tapping other waste streams.
The environmental benefits can start to slide when virgin sources are used. For instance, although a study by Argonne National Laboratory showed that “100% biodiesel from soybeans can cut global warming pollution by more than half relative to conventional petroleum-based diesel,” their model, says the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS), didn’t account for land-use impacts. The UCS explains: “When soybeans are used for fuel, they are taken out of the market for food. This increases prices and stimulates demand that farmers around the world respond to by bringing more land into cultivation. With soybean production increasing in the Amazon, it is possible that the life cycle global warming pollution of soybean biodiesel is even higher than petroleum diesel, once indirect land use changes are considered.”
Beyond land-use issues, says the UCS, “such large-volume biodiesel use could raise concerns about genetically modified crops, pesticide use and land-use impacts common to ethanol and all other plant-based fuels.”
Kumar Plocher, president of Yokayo Biofuels in Ukiah, California, agrees: “The depth of ecological devastation from palm and soy oil plantations can be huge. It’s unsustainable when diverse habitat or native homelands are destroyed for a monocrop that is then turned into oil and sent halfway across the planet. Still, there might be local soy or palm biodiesel producers in Central America who didn’t clear jungle and who deliver the fuel locally—and that’s not necessarily unsustainable.”