Concerns raised over biodiesel

Metropolitan King County Councilman Reagan Dunn has called for a study of potential harmful environmental impact from biodiesel fuel used in Metro Transit buses.

Metropolitan King County Councilman Reagan Dunn has called for a study of potential harmful environmental impact from biodiesel fuel used in Metro Transit buses.

Dunn, chairman of the council’s Regional Transit Committee, cited reports from global leaders and the scientific community that biofuels such as corn ethanol, sugarcane ethanol and biodiesel are leading to unintended damage of the environment.

He proposed a “life-cycle analysis” of the canola-based biodiesel fuel blend that used extensively in the Metro fleet.

“We need to determine if our biofuel policies are worsening climate change” and if “county taxpayers are at additional financial risk because we are a member of the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX),” said Dunn, whose district includes Maple Valley and Covington.

As a member of CCX, King County must reduce its carbon emissions by 6 percent below year 2000 levels by 2010. Higher emissions must be offset by purchasing carbon pollution credits from CCX. If using canola biodiesel negates any gains, the county may be required to buy offsets, which have no price cap.

Since January 2008, the price of carbon offsets on the CCX have tripled from approximately $2 per metric ton of CO2 to over $6 per metric ton of CO2.

The 2007 King County Climate Plan demonstrated that approximately 38 percent of all emissions generated by county government operations come from transportation. Metro buses and vehicles alone generate approximately 160,048 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of 420,031 total metric tons of carbon dioxide. The buses utilize approximately 2 million gallons of canola biodiesel annually – a “significant increase” over previous years, Dunn said.

According to Dunn, peer-reviewed science journals and international organizations are indicating that biofuels may actually do more damage to the environment than fossil fuels and contribute to world hunger. A full life-cycle analysis of the canola biodiesel will determine the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact generated throughout the entire development of the fuel. It examines the impacts from land-clearing, planting, harvesting, transportation, biodiesel conversion, blending, and usage of the fuel.

In addition to environmental impacts, Dunn said, he is asking County Executive Ron Sims to establish recommendations for alternative climate change mitigation strategies regarding the county’s financial liability as a member of CCX.

Two February 2008 studies published in Science Magazine have sparked controversy about biofuels and the environment. One study by researchers at Princeton University found that some biofuels, like corn ethanol, can actually double greenhouse emissions. Another study, this one by the University of Minnesota, concluded that land-clearing for biofuels leads to increased CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions. Additional studies show that chemical fertilizers used in biofuel production emit nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas with 296 times the heat-trapping capability of carbon dioxide.

“Too often, we are just focused on carbon dioxide, without realizing that other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane are even worse for the environment. Trading CO2 for other heat-trapping gases is not a sustainable environmental strategy,” said Dunn.

In addition to potential environmental harm, international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the United Nations have stated that biofuel policies may also contribute to higher food prices, as water, fertilizer, and arable land get used up to make fuel, Dunn noted.

“Half the world is starving, and we are burning food in our gas tanks,” Dunn said. “We need to rethink this policy and examine all of the consequences.”