Disadvantages of the Philippine Biofuel Program
Posted by butalidnl on 19 February 2008
The Biofuels Act of 2006 (R.A. 9367) which was signed into law in January 2007 is supposed to help the Philippines attain energy-self sufficiency and also help reduce the country’s CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, this act is doomed to be both ineffective and problematic in other ways. Let us go through the various disadvantages of biofuels when applied in the Philippines.
It will displace food production.
The biofuel program requires large amounts of crops e.g. sugar, cassava and jatropha, in order to produce the needed bioethanol and biodiesel. The land needed to grow such inputs could very well also be used to grow food crops. While it is true that a lot of the land eyed for the program is at present not used for growing food crops; these lands nevertheless could be used to grow food. The problems are mainly institutional, legal or technical – and these problems need to be solved anyway in order to grow the biofuel crops. Why not just solve the institutional, legal and technical problems and then grow food crops instead?
Proponents of biofuels point out that jatropha could also be planted in less fertile areas. This could be the case, but the volumes needed for the biofuel programs makes it impractical to limit jatropha growing to these less fertile areas. Fertile land will also have to be devoted to jatropha production. But sugar and cassava are also needed for the program, and these need fertile land.
It will not significantly reduce oil consumption.
The biofuels program eventually aims to displace 10% of imported gasoline and diesel by mixing these with bioethanol and biodiesel. But it overlooks the amount of oil products needed in the process of producing bioethanol. The raw materials need to be transported to the processing plant, then these would be transformed to ethanol in the processing plant, which will be followed by the blending of the oil product, and the distribution. All these steps would need oil products to run. These inputs would be equivalent to almost a half of the gasoline or diesel displaced by the biofuels. Thus, instead of the projected 10% reduction in imported diesel and gasoline, it would be only 5% at most.
Some would say that the sugar-to-ethanol plants would be using electricity from burning bagasse fiber from sugar cane and thus would not need imported oil products to run. True, but this are not real savings, because the sugar cane bagasse could be burned to directly produce electricity. Thus, we could say that the sugar-to-ethanol process actually uses up local renewable electricity, which would otherwise go to the benefit of the local population. And since this electricity from bagasse is not used for the electricity grid, the NPC would need to produce additional electricity from imported oil products instead.
Biofuels will cost more.
The whole process of producing biofuels and mixing these with gasoline and diesel would end up with a fuel that will cost more than the unmixed gasoline and diesel. The production of bioethanol and biodiesel is an expensive process. The whole cycle of producing biofuels from harvesting, to transport and processing it are all dependent on oil products, and thus the cost of producing these biofuels will be to a large extent dependent on the price of the oil products itself. And thus there is little prospect of the oil products becoming more expensive than the biofuels itself.
The government recognizes that biofuels would cost more than ordinary fuel oils; thus, they are exempting the biofuel component of the hybrid fuels (i.e. gasoline/diesel mixed with biofuels) from specific taxes in a bid to lower the overall price of the end product. Also, the government is granting an income tax holiday for companies setting up ethanol plants. These incentives would mean that tax collections will be less, and that the government would have to raise other taxes to make up for the shortfall. And this will mean that in the end, the consumer will still pay for the difference in cost.
Extensive biofuel crop production will aggravate social tensions over land.
The biofuel program and its need for large-scale production will mean that large tracts of land will be needed. This usually means that large plantations will need to be established for this purpose, or more likely big landlords will use the program as an excuse to avoid land redistribution. And we have to consider the likelihood of conflicts over land as a result of this push for large-scale production: lands will be converted, there will be land-grabbing, indigenous peoples rights to land will be disregarded, etc.
Biofuel advocates point out to large tracts of untilled lands, many of which are government owned, which would be used for planting the needed crops. But these lands are not untilled without a reason. Often, the reason would be unsettled land disputes of various kinds. Or the landowners had fled because of armed conflict. Or the land is unfit for crop farming. If these untilled lands would be given to private companies or landholders in order to grow biofuel crops, this is a recipe for big trouble – an avalanche of protests, cases filed, and armed conflict.
Biofuels do not really save on greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions.
It seems like a good idea: produce fuel from plants in order to lessen on CO2 emissions. Theoretically this would be carbon-neutral; since the amount of carbon released from the combustion of plants (or products derived from plants) would equal the amount of carbon the plant absorbed from the air during its growth.
I have pointed out earlier that oil products are going to be used in the production of biofuels. This in itself would mean that biofuel use would end up emitting additional CO2 (i.e. more CO2 than was absorbed by the plants in the first place). But we should also add to this the CO2 that was emitted in clearing the land in order to be able to plant the biofuel crops. Those plants were already absorbing CO2 from the air, meaning that clearing them from the land would in effect be adding CO2 to the atmosphere. And for the (inevitable – especially since the program will need large amounts of crops) cases when rain forest or jungle is cleared in order to make way for the biofuel crops, this would mean the addition of a big amount of CO2 to the atmosphere.
More on the Philippine Biofuel Program