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The importance of biodiesel

Biodiesel production on a grand scale doesn’t seem to convince anyone, from environmental organizations to large energy companies. Southeast Asia is prepared for its massive production, imitating Brazil.

When a barrel of petroleum reached around 70 dollars and analysts assured that the era of cheap petroleum was over forever, global energy dependence, increased by the growth of the main emerging countries- suppliers of the rich economies, is more pressing than ever.

Tense relations with Iran and the latest massive bombardments of Israel on Lebanon, as well as the instability in Iraq, don’t seem to contribute to a decrease in price per barrel.

For several countries in Southeast Asian, the moment to produce biodiesel en masse- from refined to palm oil- has arrived.

One of the main stumbling blocks for the development of vegetable fuel compounds lies with the economic viability of its production on a grand scale, something guaranteed, according to the International Agency Energy, with a barrel of petroleum that doesn’t fall below 50 dollars. Japan and several European Union countries have signed important agreements for the distribution of biodiesel in Malaysia, according to the British weekly The Economist.

One of the most adequate sources for biodiesel production comes from the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), also used in the production of products as diverse as crackers or shampoo. The lucrative business derived from the processing of palm oil has motivated the administrations of Malaysia and Indonesia to promote its development: Malaysia is building 52 new plants to process biodiesel, while Indonesia announced in the middle of August that they would allocate 110 million dollars in aid to agrarian producers who opt to produce the plant.

Both countries expect to achieve huge benefits, given the growth potential in a world that does not want to be so dependent on fossil fuels, located in the most unstable regions of the planet, something that can play favor for, once and for all, the U.S. Administration shows an active predisposition to the gradual adoption of less contaminating energies instead of scarce and expensive petroleum and extraordinarily contaminating coal, used in a massive way to produce cheap electricity an environmental price that only now scientists are beginning to point out in their studies.

The dark side of palm oil biodiesel

In spite of its benefits, the production of biodiesel doesn’t appear to be as harmless as its massive employment promises: according to The Economist, the tree Elaeis Guineensis needs several years to begin to produce fruit; the strong demand for the oil of this plant has caused a rapid increase in their prices, “making food and cooking oil more expensive for the poor”.

Representatives of the veteran American NGO Sierra Club have taken advantage of the recent interest from journalists to warn of the harmful effects of the generalized use of biodiesel as an alternative to fossil fuels.

One of the global warming experts from the organization, Daniel Becker, assured the newspaper The Washington Post that to develop biodiesel plantations on a grand scale would require the elimination of crops and the burning of more contaminating fuels by the machinery used.

Although biodiesel doesn’t produce acid rain, doesn’t damage human health and drastically diminishes greenhouse gases, it elevates the level of nitrous oxide when employed in mass, one of the causes of particulate contamination in the cities, or “smog”.

As explained Becker to The New York Times, the process to produce biodiesel is too energy intensive: “In order to grow soybeans, you need multiple passes over the field with diesel tractors, you need a lot of fertilizer that’s energy intensive to produce and, at the end of the day, you have a product that is no boon for the environment.”

Despite the risks, the massive employment of biodiesel can be not only economically beneficial, but an excellent way to moderate petroleum dependence and a realistic testing ground to go even further.

The average consumer from the rich countries, lacking corroborating surveys, will be delighted to know that they can use a fuel that does not contribute to global warming.