Renewable Diesel Is Not Renewable

This short op-ed piece was written by Gary Hughes of Biofuelwatch and was published in the Eureka Times-Standard in the heart of the redwood region in Northern California.


As the annual United Nations global climate talks have ground to another polluter-friendly conclusion, one is forced to ask themselves “what is being done to address the root causes of climate change on the North Coast of California?”

Though it is out of sight and out of mind, and moving slower than melting glaciers are retreating, Humboldt County does indeed have a regional “climate action plan” in the works.

In early June the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unambiguously approved advancing the draft Humboldt Regional Climate Action Plan (CAP) to the beginning of review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

As the county describes it, the “Climate Action Plan is a comprehensive road map that outlines the specific activities a local government will undertake to reduce GHG emissions within their jurisdiction.”

For our organization Biofuelwatch, which works to address the human rights, climate and environmental impacts of industrial bioenergy, the lack of urgency with which the county is moving the CAP is only one of our concerns.

One of the big elements of the greenhouse gas emissions reduction roadmap described in the draft CAP is a ‘drop-in’ liquid biofuel that is called Renewable Diesel.

Regardless of the “green” sounding name, renewable diesel is not renewable.

To be clear, renewable diesel is considered a “drop-in” biofuel because it can be used in a diesel engine without blending with petroleum-based diesel, nor does it require modifications of the diesel engine. Hence, the “drop-in” moniker.

Though feedstocks for renewable diesel include used cooking oil, animal tallow and other “fats, oils and greases” (FOGs), by far the predominant feedstock for making renewable diesel in California is soy oil. Renewable diesel is essentially a “food to fuel” phenomena whose rise in manufacture and use is being directly connected with rising global food prices.

Another element of renewable diesel that concerns frontline communities in places like Rodeo, on San Francisco Bay, where Phillips 66 is converting their refinery to be one of the largest biofuel refineries on the planet, is that the manufacture of renewable diesel is a high-intensity greenhouse gas emissions refining process. The “hydrocracking” required for making fuel from vegetable oils like soy requires massive amounts of hydrogen, which comes from the steam reforming of fossil gas.

Basically, the manufacture of renewable diesel relies on huge amounts of fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, the elevating of renewable diesel as a climate solution for Humboldt County failed to take into account how many of the most common forms of bioenergy are not only associated with significant increases in food prices, but also with deforestation, industrial pollution, pesticide and herbicide poisoning, degraded water resources, biodiversity loss and increased overall greenhouse gas emissions. These trends are at risk of continuing unabated due to well-intentioned but poorly conceived clean energy targets, public subsidies, markets-based mechanisms — and county-level climate “action” plans.

A hard truth is that we are living on a land-constrained planet, and the moment has passed for assuming that bioenergy is inherently an option for supporting climate stability.

Though there do exist some industrial efficiencies, processing technologies and feedstock streams that offer bioenergy products that might have a climate “benefit,” the scale of these options is extremely limited.

Bioenergy must be scrutinized with skepticism, as much bioenergy, such as so-called renewable diesel, actually presents severe threats to food security, forest protection, public health, air quality, ecosystem protection, and social justice.

A course correction is needed. Pivoting strongly to convert emissions-intensive petroleum infrastructure to function as emissions-intensive bioenergy infrastructure is a climate dead end. To achieve the core objective of energy policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to protect air quality, greater efforts are needed to exclude high-carbon forms of energy from climate action plans and incentives mechanisms. What is needed are policies to avoid infrastructure “lock-in” and the extension of the economic life of toxic “stranded assets” and to instead move away not only from fossil fuels but to also move away from land-intensive bioenergy.

It is this kind of deep structural change that is most needed in the Humboldt Regional Climate Action Plan. We implore county staff and supervisors to have the courage to stand up to the wealthy and powerful interests pushing for bioenergy false solutions in California climate policy, and instead promote alternatives that will protect public health and secure advances in the stewardship of the environment while centering equity and social justice.