Monday, July 12, 2010

Changing Fuel: Josh Tickell's Biodiesel Mission

This is #22 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Yesterday I wrote here about ways we can cut crude oil consumption as we eat. If you read that post, you might have noticed that diesel fuel supplies a lot of the petroleum energy we use to produce and ship food.

In fact, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service, 27% of energy for agricultural production comes from diesel. Additional diesel is used as we ship food items an average of 1500 miles from farm to table.

Josh Tickell, director of the award-winning documentary Fuel, wants this – and all the other ways we use diesel – to shift. With the slogan "Change Your Fuel, Change Your World," he advocates using biodiesel instead of the petroleum form, and has dedicated his (not yet very long) life to fomenting that switch.

I first wrote about Josh Tickell (he pronounces it Tih-KELL) in Divorce Your Car! when he was touring the U.S. in the Veggie Van. A Winnebago with a two-liter diesel engine, the brightly painted Veggie Van needed no alterations to run on pure biodiesel. The van towed a Green Grease Machine used to strain food matter out of used vegetable oil obtained from fast food restaurants, and then "crack" the oil molecules into smaller units for easier burning.

Fuel, which recently came out on DVD, has some great scenes of the Veggie Van on tour, especially as Tickell pulls into fast-food drive-thrus to ask for all their used frying oil. Later, the film visits Carl's Corner truck stop in Texas, one of many stations in the U.S. selling biodiesel, to interview truckers as they fill up on the light gold fuel. It also includes footage on the move to switch school buses to biodiesel, in part because diesel fumes can accumulate and concentrate inside buses. Children are particularly vulnerable to suffering respiratory problems – including lung damage – from petroleum diesel pollutants; for air quality, biodiesel is a big improvement, reducing emissions up to 75%, depending on the blend (generally ranging from 100% plant-derived biodiesel to a mix of 20% plant diesel with 80% petroleum diesel). To the extent that it cuts consumption of crude oil, biodiesel also reduces the risk of severe environmental impacts that go along with every stage of extracting, refining, and burning petroleum products.

If you follow biofuels news, you might be stopping here and saying, "Wait – what about the studies that determined biofuels are actually WORSE for the environment than oil?" Fuel covers that as well, recounting the political and economic fallout from the finding that biofuel production could generate more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels due to the clearing of natural land to grow biofuel source crops. About the same time, food riots and price hikes occurred because some biofuels production had already begun to displace food crops. With government support withdrawn, the biofuels market suffered.

This also sent Tickell back to the biodiesel drawing board, then out to find ways that biodiesel might be made without affecting the food supply or resulting in net increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Fuel shows how he finds these, following him to interviews with researchers and entrepreneurs making biodiesel from algae, or from waste products. As with many things, we see that how sustainable biodiesel might be, and how much it might help us recover from oil addiction, depends on how we make and use it, and how much.

As he advocates biodiesel, Tickell acknowledges it can't do the whole job of getting us off oil. To his credit, he also talks about the need for energy efficiency. This echoes my own perspective that widespread conversion to any different fuel is not a panacea. We can benefit from powering motor vehicles as cleanly as possible, but we also – and especially – need to reduce how much we use them.

Tickell made this movie well before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It was particularly compelling, then, to see all the scenes this film shows of the oil industry in Louisiana. It turns out Tickell's mother comes from that state (his father's from Australia) and we see in the film how he was shaped by spending part of his childhood there. Well before the current Gulf disaster, Fuel tells us, oil drilling and refining had turned parts of Louisiana into a Cancer Alley; in Fuel, Tickell hints that some of his family members sickened and died for this reason.

Watching this film now, as millions more gallons of oil gush into the Gulf, decimating fisheries, fouling the air, and sickening people exposed, only lends more urgency to Tickell's message. Fuel is the story of one man's search for a way out of oil addiction. Others among us might find different routes, but it's the kind of journey we all need to follow.


  1. This is especially interesting to me because I now drive a car in which I burn biodiesel and have considered switching to used fryer oil. I actually bought the car, a 1985 Mercedes 300 SD, to do the latter but it's not as easy as it sounds. I much prefer spending my time cooking rather than filtering oil.

    In any case, I just started reading a book called Greasy Rider, about 2 guys who travel the US only on used fryer oil. Interesting.

    Much to my chagrin, the powers that be didn't pass some law to give biodiesel some tax break and the price of biodiesel has gone up 34 cents per gallon because of it, sometime in the past month. I will still use it B20 and have since I bought the car, but because of cost (at about $4 per gallon for the B99.9, almost 100%), I won't be using much of the pure stuff. So many issues with all of this.

    Patiently waiting for the algae diesel to show up.

  2. We need so many more creative ideas, creative solutions to this oil dependency.