Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

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

5 Responses to “Disadvantages of the Philippine Biofuel Program”

  1. hi! I am Maricris, a student from a college in Manila and at the same time an officer of an environmental organization in our school. I am interested of this topic and also our org has planned to hold an advocacy on these issue. With this, we are looking for speakers that could give us knowledge on this issue. I would like to ask if you know some persons with this concern?
    I hope I will receive a response from you. Thank you.

  2. Bill Stevens said

    Hello, Butalidnl but I tend to disagree with your assessment of your biodiesel program. It seems to me that you are baseing alot of your assessment from information from the failing U.S. program. The U.S. is using corn and does require alot of energy to produce. I don’t believe that Jatropha seed processing requires the same amount of energy to refine. I also don’t believe that your costs would come anywhere near what the U.S. costs are due to the less restrictive environement in the creation of a processing plant. The U.S. is so overly restrictive that it will probably take a huge deficit before our country wakes up and embraces the push towards the future. I would consider this to be the greatest opportunity your country has had at any time. Jatropha will never push out valid food crops as almost all food crops require moisture rich soil and as is seen in the research from a professor in India the Jatropha plant actually suffers greatly in moisture rich soils. I truly wish I was able to participate in this venture. If I were you I would scoop up some dry arid land and start a jatropha farm as I believe there will be a short supply of the seeds for the new processing plant that is nearly at full production capabilities from what I have read.

    -Bill
    Hawaii, U.S.A.

  3. Bill Stevens said

    Oh btw, The carbon footprint would benefit because you aren’t harvesting the plant just the seeds, and you typically planting these in environments where the plant life would have been substantially lower previous to the planting. Again the information you are baseing your information on sounds like the same arguments that are used against the U.S. Biodiesel program which was subsidized and implemented by petroleum companies and therefore destined to fail. They are also sabatoging (need a spellcheck) the hydrogen fuel programs. If you check the internet you can find all kinds of resourceful individuals that are able to implement solutions, but there is no way they would be allowed or have the funding to create large scale solutions. It is going to be a long and difficult road getting out from under the grip of the oil industry. It is similar to the strangle-hold the drug cartells have on some 3rd world countries, or the tabacco industry of the past.

  4. butalidnl,

    I need a citation for a research paper I am doing and would love to repeat the following statement you made, “These inputs would be equivalent to almost a half of the gasoline or diesel displaced by the biofuels.” Where is your source for this statement? I desperately need it.

    Cheers, RK

  5. Quality Information Thanks!

    I have bookmarked your site, if you get a chance please take a look at our site

    http://www.bio-partners.co.uk

    there is some more information you may find useful in our members area!

    Warm Regards,

    Dougie

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