Biodiesel : good or bad?

biodiesel-porvooThe recent forest fires in Indonesia cast a cloud over the sea that stretched as far as Singapore. Implicated in the causes was land clearance for palm plantations to feed our insatiable desire for the wonder product palm oil.

Palm oil can provide the feedstock for lipstick or ice cream or biofuel: it is wonderfully adaptable natural product.  But at the same time growing demand has led to the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations reducing the extent of rainforest and putting at risk its inhabitants, including the iconic and attractive orang-utan.  It was with in mind that I listened to a presentation from a manager at the Neste oil refinery at Porvoo in Finland.  Neste Oil is the Finnish state owned oil company and its Porvoo refinery is a pioneer in biodiesel production. 

Neste claims to be the largest producer of biodiesel in the world.  It takes feedstocks from vegetable or animal oils and currently produces 380,000 tonnes of biodiesel a year.  While palm oil is the preferred feedstock political considerations led to its replacement and the Porvoo refinery now takes waste oil from fish processing and animal fats.  Environmental and ethical concerns have resulted in the refinery moving away from palm oil to other less controversial products but Neste refineries in Rotterdam and Singapore continue to use palm oil.

Biofuels have dropped from favour yet the demand for oil continues to grow and mineral sources will continue to be exploited unless someone can find an acceptable alternative.  There may yet be a place for biodiesel made from waste products and there have been attempts, for example by WWF, to promote more sustainable sources of palm oil.  So while unfashionable, biodiesel may yet have a place as an alternative to fossil fuels.  

Adrian Shaw

July 2013