January 23, 2008 (Inquirer.net) – The hottest debate in town involves something vital to motorists: fuel. Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who ironically enough authored the Biofuels Act of 2007, wants to apply the brakes on its implementation, citing the recent warning of 1998 Nobel laureate for chemistry Dr. Hartmut Michel that our government’s biofuels program could endanger the country’s food security and harm the environment. The Biofuels Act, which was signed into law in January 2007, requires the oil industry to sell diesel with a minimum 1 percent biodiesel blend (B1) within three months after the signing of the law and gasoline with 5 percent bioethanol (E5) in two years. The Biofuels Act aims to reduce the nation’s dependence on imported fossil fuels, save hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign exchange annually, cut the carbon-dioxide emissions believed to cause global warming and revive the moribund sugar and coconut industries.
Santiago’s call for a review of the Biofuels Act was immediately challenged by Sen. Miguel Zubiri, author of the House of Representatives’ version of the biofuels law when he was a congressman. Countering the argument that converting hundreds of thousands of hectares of arable land from food crops to biofuel crops will cause food shortages, Zubiri clarified that since bioethanol will be derived from sugarcane, there is no need to tap other arable land areas. And since sugar is only an additive, not an essential food staple like rice or corn, planting more sugar for bioethanol production will not sacrifice food security.
However, Zuburi hardly mentioned jatropha (tuba-tuba), a tall bush with highly toxic fruit and bark that is already part of the rural farming landscape. Since jatropha is a hedge plant, not a food crop and can be planted in marginal land where food crops are not or cannot be grown, its oily seeds are increasingly seen as a more sustainable biodiesel raw material than expensive palm oil or coconut.
Foreign investors have expressed interest in massive jatropha planting programs, encouraging local government units to offer large tracts of land. Last October, a Special Report on Energy in the International Herald Tribune noted that a British firm, NRG Chemical Engineering, will invest $600 million in jatropha plantations that will cover over a million hectares, mainly in Palawan and Mindanao. NRG Chemical has set up a joint venture with the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) to build a biodiesel refinery and two bioethanol distilleries.
Over a million hectares will be tapped because jatropha needs vast areas to produce a substantial amount of oil. The yield of jatropha oil per hectare is only 1.7 metric tons compared to palm oil, which can yield as much as 5 metric tons of oil per hectare, a spokesman for a British biodiesel producer said.
Another problem is that jatropha requires a lot of water – about 1,000 milliliters of rainfall a year. If it is planted in areas that are too wet or too dry, it might not produce any yield at all. So it would be useless to chop down rainforests to plant jatropha or to plant it in areas that are too arid.
The chopping down of tropical rainforests and native vegetation to plant biofuel crops has prompted the 27-nation European Union to draft a law banning the importation of fuels derived from crops grown on certain kinds of land, including forests, wetlands or grasslands. Aside from the draining and deforestation of peat lands to make way for them, biofuel crops are farmed by tractors using fossil fuels like diesel. They also demand huge amounts of water and nitrogen fertilizer made largely with natural gas.
Contrary to the claims of biofuel producers that biofuels help reduce greenhouse gases by lowering fossil fuel use and growing carbon dioxide-absorbing plants, recent studies have shown that growing the crops in large volumes and turning them into fuel can result in considerable environmental harm. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Washington has also warned that biofuel production could result in environmental destruction, pollution and damage to human health.
A sharp rise in the prices of biofuel raw materials and growing concerns about the environmental sustainability of alternative fuels are forcing governments to rethink their commitment to such fuels. Is there enough land or water to produce all the crops needed to keep biofuel prices low?
Meanwhile, the oil giants are funding research to find the perfect renewable fuel that is economical, easy to produce on a large scale and compatible with existing pipelines. Ethanol and biodiesel cannot be transported through pipelines that carry gasoline and diesel because they leach water and other contaminants that would render them unusable.
Ethanol and biodiesel also get lower mileage per liter than conventional gasoline and diesel. Because of these corrosive effects, some auto and truck manufacturers warn consumers that the warranty of vehicles will be nullified if they use gasoline blended with high percentages of ethanol or diesel blended with high quantities of biodiesel.