A Brazilian oil company plans the construction of an access road into the wilds of the Yasuni National Park in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon. After a two-year campaign by environmental groups and scientists, fortunately the Yasuni is saved for the foreseeable future.
However, years of oil operations elsewhere in the country’s rainforests have left behind hundreds of unlined toxic pits containing dangerous levels of benzene, toluene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Water supplies have been contaminated, and three indigenous tribes are experiencing increased cancer rates. Over the years, oil waste was pumped into local rivers, dumped into landfills and spread along dirt roads.
In parts of Sudan, oil has fuelled further human rights abuses. When oil exports commenced in 1999, the commodity suddenly became both the primary objective and cause of the country’s long-standing civil war. Government oil revenues were spent both on arms to fight rebel forces, and on further oil development. In the south, pastoral Dinka and Nuer peoples have been violently displaced to make way for oilfields.
The US oil industry has lobbied successfully against that country’s participation in the Kyoto Protocol, funding several ‘conservative’ and ‘free market’ greenhouse-debunker think tanks. In reality, nearly all independent scientists agree that we are experiencing the manifestations of global warming, largely driven by fossil fuel use. Closer to home, the greenhouse effect is believed to be exacerbating recent drought periods that have ruined farmers and depleted urban water reserves.
Our fossil fuel fixation is the root cause of an array of problems, to which we can add the challenge of diminishing oil reserves. While no ‘one size fits all’ solution exists, several environmentally sound alternatives to non-renewable fuels have been developed in recent years, and are gaining ground.
A renewable diesel option
In 1895, when Dr. Rudolf Diesel designed his first eponymous engine, it was intended to run on vegetable oil. Although his vision was not realised to any significant degree during the 20th century, a shift is underway following the early efforts of a handful of vegetable oil enthusiasts. Using biodiesel, a renewable substitute for petroleum diesel, they have been clocking up thousands of kilometres in vehicles such as Joshua Tickell’s Veggie Van.
Having similar properties to petroleum diesel (petrodiesel), biodiesel can be used in diesel engines without vehicle modifications, with the only difference being a sometimes-noticeable ‘fish and chips’ smell. It can be used unblended (pure biodiesel is referred to as B100), or blended with petrodiesel in any ratio, although B20 (20% biodiesel) is the most common mix. Non-toxic, it yields a similar power to its petroleum equivalent, and is far less flammable.
Although nearly all Australian biodiesel is produced from waste vegetable oil, a sufficient increase in demand would require additional use of new vegetable oils such as canola, soya, cottonseed, and mustard seed. Biodiesel qualifies as a relevant fuel under the Federal Government’s Energy Grants Credits Scheme, the successor to the Diesel Fuel Rebate. This scheme targets certain industry sectors, with an emphasis on rural and regional Australia.
Environmentally speaking, biodiesel is very greenhouse-friendly fuel, and has been found to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 78% when measured on a lifecycle basis. (This takes into account the full energy costs, including its manufacture, the production of chemical feedstocks, and transport of both waste vegetable oil and the finished product.) All other noxious vehicle emissions are reduced, with the possible exception of nitrous oxides (NOx), which may slightly increase. For long-term users of B100, tweaking the engine timing can bring NOx levels down to a lower level than those emitted when using petrodiesel.
Australia has mandated that all diesel sold must be the ultra low sulphur variety. While this measure will greatly reduce the level of particulates (harmful fine sooty emissions) sent into the atmosphere, the role of sulphur in diesel is to provide lubrication, and finding a replacement is advisable to maintain the life of diesel engines. It has been found that adding as little as 2% biodiesel has a very beneficial lubricating effect. As a mild solvent, biodiesel tends to remove any deposits encrusted on fuel lines as a result of previous petrodiesel use. When first switching over to biodiesel, it may be worth catching this ‘gunk’ by installing a cheap in-line sacrificial fuel filter and changing it regularly; this is far cheaper than the expense of going through several standard filters. Biodiesel’s solvent action will slowly erode natural or butyl rubber hoses, and while this is no problem for anyone experimenting with it as an alternative fuel, long-term users are advised to change over to synthetic hoses.
The many benefits of widespread biodiesel use in Australia would include an improved balance of payments deficit; less reliance on imported fuels; a lower vulnerability to fuel price fluctuations and rises; employment creation; economic benefits for Australia’s rural sector; and reduced depletion of a non-renewable resource. Although biodiesel requires few vehicle modifications, it tends to be time-consuming to make; however this may change with the more recent arrival of biodiesel kits on the market. Another similar biofuel option is Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO), which after potentially costly vehicle retrofitting is far cheaper and simpler to produce. Necessary alterations to a vehicle include the installation of a second fuel tank with a heating system, and a dashboard switch. Preheating SVO reduces its viscosity, and the engine is started with petrodiesel or biodiesel before switching across. Despite such measures, SVO may still be problematic at lower temperatures.
Biodiesel in Australia and overseas
As a global phenomenon, biodiesel production is generally limited only by the availability of vegetable oil. It is undergoing a fast expansion in Europe and the US, where the fuel benefits from an excise exemption, and is used in some government fleets. In Germany, at least 1,500 petrol stations have biodiesel bowsers, and France mandates that all ultra low sulphur diesels must contain 5% biodiesel for better lubrication.
Unlike in Europe, where they constitute a significant share of the car market, diesel cars are still uncommon in Australia. Any biodiesel fan interested in choosing a diesel as their next vehicle might, as an alternative to a guzzling 4WD, start by looking at cars made by European companies such as Audi, VW, Citroen and Peugeot.
One downside to this encouraging picture is that for the small user, commercial biodiesel is only available from a very limited number of outlets in Australia. This can be a frustrating experience for those discouraged from making their own either by the unavoidable use of a couple of dangerous chemicals or the compliance implications (explained later on). Several commercial plants are in different stages of completion. In March, Australian Renewable Fuels opened the country’s largest biodiesel plant in Adelaide, while Natural Fuels Australia is close to completing a facility in Darwin. Australian Biodiesel Group is already supplying moderate quantities to a handful of local councils and companies from Berkeley Vale on the Central Coast, north of Sydney.
Among councils, both Camden (NSW) and Onkaparinga (SA) are trialing garbage trucks on B100. Newcastle, a local government sustainability leader, has gone much further and in 2003 it converted its entire diesel fleet of 228 vehicles to B20. Ten garbage trucks that visit all the city’s suburbs have been turned into moving billboards to promote the project.
In 2003, the taxman caught up with biodiesel, and an excise was imposed on this previously excise-free fuel. Confusingly for some, the levy was initially set at around 38c per litre (the same level as for petrodiesel), but as a result of concerns expressed by Democrats about the crippling effect this excise level could have on the fledgling industry, this figure was later halved to about 19c. An ATO initiative called the Cleaner Fuels Grants Scheme provides for the payment of a grant to offset excise costs, and this will be removed incrementally from 2011 to 2015.
More controversially, at around the same time, it was determined that small producers need to ensure that their homemade efforts meet the newly drafted Fuel Standard (Biodiesel). Applying equally to backyard producers and multi-million dollar corporations, licensing and testing costs must be borne by the producer, amounting to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars: detailed records need to be kept for at least five years. The relevant ATO guides are the About Biodiesel factsheet (9883), and the guides Meeting Your Biodiesel Obligations (9885) and The Cleaner Fuels Grants Scheme (9886).
Sadly, such an obstacle is certain to have wiped out most law-abiding home-based operations, and it was criticised for this reason by Lyn Allison, the Democrats’ spokeswoman for Energy and Resources. Introducing this level of regulation before a commercial supply arrives at the bowsers is a case of unfortunate timing, as it will inevitably push up Australia’s greenhouse emissions.
One group closely following these developments is the Biodiesel Association of Australia. With about 500 members, for the last few years it has been involved in the areas of education, promotion, lobbying and research. Through the ‘member finder’ facility, like-minded biodiesel enthusiasts in the same geographical area can link up to pool ideas and resources.
Alternative Technology Association
Australian Taxation Office biodiesel excise resources
1300 657 162 / www.ato.gov.au/excise
Journey to Forever biodiesel resources
B100 is available in the Adelaide suburbs of Pooraka, Blackwood, and Parafield Gardens.
B20 is available in about a dozen locations around Adelaide.
Rally Service Centre
Ph: (02) 9557 3235
73 Marrickville Road (Corner of Sydney Road), Marrickville, Sydney
North Coast Cooking Oils
Ph: (02) 6680 8827
Pure biodiesel delivered around the NSW Northern Rivers in 44-gallon (205 litre) drums. Vehicles can also be filled up at the Byron Bay plant.
A word of warning
Although biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil has a low environmental impact, increased global demand for the fuel is encouraging the use of virgin palm oil as a feedstock. As oil palm plantations have been linked to broadscale rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, any biodiesel from such sources is environmentally questionable. If in doubt, ask.
With the proximity of South-East Asia to Australia, market forces may lead elements of Australia’s biodiesel industry to increasingly look northwards for its oil supply.
More encouragingly, the industry has been investigating Jatropha, a tree originating from the Caribbean that can yield 1,600 litres of oil per hectare. Being drought resistant, it can be grown on marginal land unsuitable for other oil crops. In India, the government has identified thirty million hectares of land on the subcontinent as suitable for Jatropha ‘energy plantations’.
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